April 16, 2011: 2:27 pm: Commentary

by Tom Merritt

I have often argued that attempts by the media industry to deal with digital media, especially on the Internet are examples of people who used to game the system and now can’t so they resort to the law to make it illegal for them not to game the system.

That’s one of those glib statements that is easily disputed by folks saying “what the hell does that even mean?” I figured I’d take some time to explain. And in the process I’ve laid out my thinking on intellectual property and my position in the debate about copyright.

I’ll start by using politics as an example of gaming the system, show how that applies to media, talk about how things would be if we always had infinitely copyable files, and then point in the direction of where we should go next.

Gaming the system, what the heck does that mean? – an example from politics

Here’s what I mean when I say gaming the system. Democracy offers us an excellent example. Let’s say the principle of a given representative democracy is to vote for the best person to represent your local interests in a large assembly of representatives from different locales. Then in that assembly the representatives decide to pick the best person to be the overall leader of the assembly, and thereby, the government. It’s a beautiful idea. If all goes as planned, the best people bring their perspectives and choose the best leader.

Until people begin to game the system. It starts when someone decides they desperately want to be the representative. They can’t bear the thought of someone else being chosen as the best person to represent their local area. They must win! This impulse to win is admirable and part of what moves the species forward. But it has side effects.

Instead of allowing everyone to go unpersuaded to the polls and pick the person they think would make the best representative, our power-hungry hopeful representative tries to convince everyone to vote for her or him. They campaign. But campaigning is tricky. It takes money, time and effort to sway people, especially once other people who also want to be representatives start doing it too. So it makes sense to band together with like-minded folks, and representative wannabes from other locales, to form an organization that helps raise money, devotes time and puts in effort to campaign. Eventually through competition, only a few, or maybe two, parties can collect enough support to keep going.

Now the parties have control of who runs for election. They have gamed the system. What started as a pure idea of selecting the best person from the community, has become a competition between two or three organized elites, that need to consider popular opinion, but can foist their own selected people into the race for the job of representative.

We could easily get distracted into a discussion of what this means for government and democracy, but I’m stopping here. This is a natural outgrowth of human society in a democracy. Within a standard deviation, this is what happens in most democracies that avoid becoming one-party dictatorships. It’s natural. It’s taking an ideal system and working it to your advantage.

So how does this apply to media?

Up until the last decade the media had gamed the system in many ways. Let’s use music as an example, though similar arguments can be made for movies, newspapers and other forms of media. Our ideals in music is that a musician makes great music, and we support that artist as best we can. In the 20th century that had progressed from passing the hat at the pub, to paying for records and concert tickets. In all cases though, ideally the best artists made the most money.

In reality record companies figured out a similar manipulation as political parties. If somebody wanted to make their band more successful than another band, they could join a record label and use the time, money, and effort available to persuade people to pay attention to their band. A better band might exist, but if it wasn’t on a record label, it might never get heard. And even if it was heard, marketing might persuade the less particular members of the audience that the label’s band must be better, because it seemed so popular. When the main conduit for hearing bands was the radio, a tight system came into place.

Radio had a limited number of songs it could play. In fact it found the more it limited its playlists the more popular it became, all complaints about repetition aside. Record companies provided free records to radio stations in exchange for exposure. Among the limited number of songs they played, some became popular and the radio played them more and thus they gained more exposure. To support the artists you heard, your easiest choice was to go to a record shop and purchase an object which had their songs recorded on it. In rarer instances, the artists might come to your town and play a concert to which you could buy a ticket. Your only other choices were to go see bands who were not on labels at smaller venues like bars. That never threatened the major system. It didn’t have the quality control or the reach. And those bands had limited distribution, if any, for recorded objects. The easiest thing to do was go to the shop and buy records you heard on the radio.

Then came the Internet. Buying records you heard on the radio at the shop was easier than scouring bars for bands you liked and buying their albums directly from them, But downloading music from the Internet was much easier than leaving the house and going to the shop. Now bands could market their music directly to consumers, social networks could allow you to share discoveries with thousands of like-minded people, niche websites and Internet radio stations could help you discover music you never would hear otherwise and radio no longer had a lock on how people discovered new music. Fans could show their appreciation for a band by starting a fan site, visiting the band’s website, buying t-shirts or even signing online petitions for the band to come to their town. This didn’t break the recording industry system, but it eroded it.

And so we saw two major initiatives to attack this threat, both attempts to formalize the previously-gamed system into law.

One was done against Internet radio. If people had millions of ways to discover music, then labels lost some control over which bands became popular. An effort was made to make Internet radio stations pay a punitively high license to play music. Radio had never had to pay this fee, because the service they provided to music was so valuable. But Internet radio was a threat not a service. In the waning days of this battle, the industry has turned to assaulting radio, figuring if they can’t reduce the number of venues for discovery on the Internet, then the service provided by radio is no longer as valuable, and radio better start paying.

This approach has failed because the ways of discovering music on an infintely-copyable medium are not limited to streaming radio stations. Straightforward Internet radio proliferation has certainly been hindered but only to see innovation in streaming services that license music for sale like Spotify, Rdio, Pandora and the like. Facebook, MySpace and Twitter also serve as discovery mechanisms as do artists themselves with fan pages. The assault on Internet radio has succeeded only in making Internet radio worse by driving people away from trying it. It has done nothing to preserve or promote the recording industry.

The second assault is the assault on piracy. When the only way to get music was to buy it in a shop on vinyl, the recording industry was in heaven. Here was a gold mine. Up until that point all you could do was buy sheet music and play it yourself or wait for a concert. Now you could have the artists in your home. And through the limitations of technology and the fact of physical objects you had no choice but to pay for the privilege.

Then recordable tape, particularly cassettes, arrived and a threat was perceived. Consumers could make their own recordings. They could record music off radio, or at concerts, or even reproduce the physical objects they purchased from the stores and then hand them out for free as “mix tapes”. The recording industry’s reaction was to fight this hard. They fought it in the courts, lobbied for laws against duplicating tapes, and laws against selling the electronics (like dual cassette players) that allowed it. In the end they lost and gave up the fight as they realized the damage was minimal, and they could adapt in other ways. Cassettes had sound limitations, so CDs were pushed as a much better way to hear music. Sure you could duplicate cassettes, but it was low quality. CDs were the real thing and unparalleled.

Then digital music came along and made it possible to not only duplicate CDs but actually digitize all kinds of music and share perfect copies. The recording industry went back to the exact same strategy they tried against cassettes (and videotape).

They wanted to preserve the way they gamed the system. When you couldn’t get an artist’s music any other way, you paid for copies. But now you didn’t have to. You could get perfect copies of music and once a file is made the cost of duplication and distribution is almost nothing. There is no system to game. So the industry moved to change the laws, or interpret old laws to apply to preserve the system they learned to game so well.

What if the Internet always existed

What if there had never been a music industry and we had always had infinitely copyable music files and cheap distribution of recordings. Would there be no music? The industry implies this as the subtext of their arguments, but it’s false. Before recorded music, there was plenty of music of high quality and low. We don’t lose musicians by having the Internet.

That doesn’t mean musicians all have to be poor and play music for free. How could musicians game the system then? Obviously in a system where media is infinitely copyable, you don’t game it by trying to sell files. Let’s go back to the start.

The idea is we have musicians who play music and we want ways to support them and reward them for what they do. In the ideal, individual artists put their music online and we give the best artists our money, possibly for tickets to concerts, for merchandise and maybe even as donations.

But if they organize they can increase the time, money, and effort put behind getting attention to their music and receiving money for it. They can better plan and promote events and appearances, and sell unique items and collectibles and better argue why you should donate to their causes. There is a role for an organization like a music label. They just need to provide different services to the artists than they used to.

So what do we do now?

All of this applies to movies, publishing and journalism in various ways. One major question then, is will this industry be as big as it used to be? The answer is, it doesn’t matter. We shouldn’t base our laws on whether we can preserve an industry’s profitability level. If that were the case, we should have outlawed automobiles for the damage they did to the buggy industry.

The problem is the industry is waging a massive campaign to keep you from discussing that point. They want to distract you with arguments about thievery and artists getting paid. There can’t be real thievery when the original item is left, and there are plenty of other ways for artists to get paid. Maybe not as much in aggregate, but paid nonetheless. The industry organizations seriously argue that we may not have newspapers, books, movies, or music, if they don’t get their way. They are patently wrong. THEY won’t make the levels of money off those things, true, but that’s a much different argument than saying they will disappear entirely.

More reasonable arguments assert that quality will drop if the industry doesn’t make its previous levels of money to support good projects. This is most frequently applied to journalism. But where has this quality been? Is it common to hear people rhapsodizing about how amazing the movies from Hollywood are? Have we lived in a paradise where everyone not only reads the daily newspaper but raves about how amazing the journalism is? The fact is that there is good media and bad in the current system and it doesn’t seem that the good is so incredibly common. It’s not apparent that the good to bad ratio would even change if the system was overhauled. It might even get better. There will always be a market for high quality art and journalism, just as there will always be a market for overwrought fluff and vapidity. We just need to change how we monetize it.

And I don’t think the industry executives are villains for wanting to maintain profitable businesses. It’s perfectly natural to not want to change a business model that has worked for so long. What if you change it the wrong way and go broke? That’s frightening. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to put up with ISPs spying on us, restrictive bandwidth caps being put in place, and draconian copying legislation being shoved down our throats, just so media executives can sleep better at night.

So what should we do? What we do now is hold off enacting more laws to preserve old ways. We stop thinking of digital media as physical objects. We stop fretting that we will lose our culture if we don’t do something drastic, and we realize all that will be lost is a very small number of people’s money. We repeal laws like the DMCA that work only to stifle innovation and keep us in this quandary longer than we need to be. We re-evaluate intellectual property law with an eye towards re-focusing it on the purpose of encouraging the arts and promoting innovation, rather than keeping revenue streams going for certain companies.

We face the fact that nobody is making sure your kids still get paid for the work you did 40 years ago, so why should that be true for others? And we spend our time and energy on figuring out new ways to support artists, journalists, writers, and musicians, based on the realities of a world where the majority of works of art are no longer unique objects that can be sold because of scarcity. Artificial scarcity is not the answer. And that’s good. Because it forces us to once again put a truer value on what is being created and possibly limit the effects of people trying to game the system. And that, in my humble opinion, is a good thing.

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Our laws shouldn’t preserve business models by Tom Merritt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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January 4, 2010: 7:23 pm: Commentary

Follow this trail of the debate of sociological ideas and jump on at the beginning of each phase with a column, posting, speech, etc. You want to be able to claim to be the first to identify each trend (even if you weren’t). Examples are in parentheses.

1. Accepted explanation of how things work
(Expert opinions from a small group are needed to make decisions. Popular opinion is unreliable.)

2. Observe that changing conditions reveal unexpected way things work
(When large groups provide aggregate decision-making they can sometimes be as or more accurate than experts.)

3. Explain some of the things it could mean to society. Produce careful defensible but revolutionary explanations of how we can use this observation to improve humanity.
(When properly used, allowing large crowds to have input on decion-making can improve results.)

4. Exaggerate importance and affect of this change. Create a simplified explanation and draw spurious conclusions. Commodify, repeat and spread the oversimplification. Catch phrases are important in this phase.
(The Wisdom of the Crowds will revolutionize how we make decisions and conduct business. This crowdsourcing is invaluable. Just ask the crowd!)

5. Misunderstand yet passionately defend simplified explanation of the change. Treat spurious conclusions as unquestionable dogma that all must follow. Convince important people they must follow or be left behind, but provide no real understanding of the actual observation of change.
(You must trust the crowds. The Web 2.0 universe will always outperform experts. There is no limit to what the bazaar can achieve over the cathedral! If you’re not crowdsourcing you’re being left behind!)

6. Choose sides and militantly attack/defend the oversimplified explanation.
(This crowdsourcing crap is dumbing down our culture! The wisdom of the crowds will prevail over all and leave you in the dust! Fanboy! Reactionary!)

7. Begin backlash against the oversimplified. Claim it is unimportant, never existed. Claim it is just a fashionable trend that’s being forced down everyone’s throats.
(This crowdsourcing trend is starting to show itself for what it is, a load of hokum. No successful business has significantly changed what they do because of some great crowd wisdom project. It’s always been baloney, and now people are waking up and seeing it for what it is)

8. Mock, decry, and denounce the first observers of the change as idiots. However, only use the later oversimplified version of their observations and any unfounded conclusions as evidence of their idiocy.
(These crowdsourcing advocates promised us an idealistic world without mistakes as we relied on the crowd to accurately decide our every move.)

9. Declare the idea dead, its proponents discredited, its effects almost all negative.
(Crowdsourcing was all the rage ten years ago but now the idea is dead. Only those fringe proponents who cannot let go of a failed idea, still attempt to defend it.)

10. DO NOT observe that the original moderate observation of the change has proven mostly accurate and that only the exaggerations and oversimplifications have proven false. If you must acknowledge any part as real, treat it as a self-evident fact that is almost not worth noting.
(Of course, popular opinion must be accounted for. Everyone knows that. It’s always been valuable. There’s nothing new there.)

11. If no part of the original observation remains in public discourse after a few years, revive the idea with new nomenclature and rhetoric. Repeat from step 3.
(My new theory of audience engagement suggest that some aggregate opinions, may inform certain decisions, and improve overall accuracy and effectiveness.)

November 23, 2009: 7:58 pm: Commentary

I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of content I like to cover/research/discuss and started making a map in my head about it. Here’s what I came up with, including a description of each category and some examples. The overarching theme is that it’s all geek/nerd content. So I like to think of it as a categorization of the geek universe. I’m sure I missed some of your favorite categories so please add them in the comments section.

Movies – Mostly Sci/Fi or Fantasy with some occasional thrillers or experimental stuff. Recent examples are 2012, Star Trek, Avatar, etc.. Some of my favorite geeky movie podcasts are The Movielicious and Film Sack.

TV – Again SciFi/Fantasy or Geeky is the rule here. My lineup right now includes Flash Forward, Heroes, Dollhouse, V, Stargate Universe, Sanctuary, Fringe and Doctor Who. I don’t listen to a good podcast about this stuff, though we do tend to talk about it a lot on East Meets West.

Books – A little broader here than just SciFi/Fantasy though dominated by it. I also include geekier off-the-beaten-path interests. That could be non-fiction like anything by Evelyn Wauugh that’s not Brideshead Revisited. Or non-fiction geeking out on things like Guns, Germs, and Steel. I do Sword and Laser to cover Sci/Fi/Fantasy. I wish I liked a good general book podcast. Suggestions?

Comics – I’m not the biggest comics geek in the world by far, but I do enjoy them quite a bit, and go through phases of buying them. I’ve always been a Superman fan, but that doesn’t mean I’m loyal to DC. I also cut my teeth on the Love and Rockets series. I also dearly love online comics like XKCD, Extra Life, WonderMark and the classic grandaddy of them all for me User Friendly. One podcast that covers a lot of these topics, and is done by Web comic artists is Extra Life Radio.

Video Games – I’m also just a dabbler in video games. In the past year I’ve really been enjoying playing World Of Warcraft. I know some cool people who play, but I also agreatly admire the world they’ve created. That said, when I get time I also love playing a good console game. RPGs and driving games are my favorites. I have a rich history in video games though, dating back to my days of Hunting the Wumpus on the TI 99/4A and so am a big fan of classic gaming. Hands down the best World of Warcraft podcast I know of is The Instance.

Tech – This is my job at CNET TV, so I’m probably best at talking tech. I do Buzz Out Loud every day which I think is one of the best daily tech news roundup shows you can get, if I do say so myself. It’s the amazingly smart audience that makes it so. I’m also a great admirer of This Week in Tech, both the show and Leo Laporte’s whole network. But I would remiss if I didn’t also mention Tekzilla with two of the most awesome hosts in Web video, Patrick Norton and Veronica Belmont.

Science – I am and always have been a huge huge fan of science. I’m especially a physics (particle and quantum) and astronomy fanboy. I read Scientific American cover to cover every month. My absolute favorite science show is This Week in Science.

Toys – Another one I was more involved in when I was younger and am now rediscovering an appreciation for. I have a working Doctor Who sonic screwdriver and a Mr. Pink doll from Reservoir Dogs. But I pale in comparison to the real toy collectors out there. I’ve been brushing up on my toy knowledge with the most excellent Toy Break show. You should too. If you like toys, that is.

Fringeware – This is my catch all for oddities, weird stuff, esoterica, pretty much anything covered by Boing Boing. I’ll make an anarchic jumble of examples out of Umberto Eco, RE/Search, Church of the SubGenius and Mashups. One excellent example of a good show on the Net in this category is the incredible Scam School, wherein one Brian Brushwood teaches you how to do tricks in order to scam free drinks. Yes, it is produced by my wife, so you can call me biased, but watch it anyway and you’ll see it’s a damn great show.

World events – This one I struggle with including here. But I think all geeks and nerds are consumed with knowing a little more, or having inside knowledge of, how the world works. I take in The Economist, which gives you a free complete audio edition of every magazine as part of the subscription price. In other words they read the magazine to you. They also have a good free podcast for non-subscribers that they use as a teaser. I also listen to The World Next Week from the Council on Foreign Relations. And I recommend The Phileas Club, a monthly discussion show between people from all parts of the world.

April 27, 2008: 11:48 am: Commentary

I haven’t got out of bed yet today. And yet I’ve learned quite a bit. Mostly I improved my solitaire playing ability. But I also pulled up MobileTwit and stumbled upon a fantastic piece by Clay Shirky as retweeted by Leo Laporte. The oversimplification is that sitcoms are to the technological revolution what gin was to the industrial revolution. The less oversimplified version is that we have plenty of time to make amazing things like wikipedia, because we can use time previously wasted on sitcoms. That and the idea that little kids expect everything, even the TV, to come with a mouse, rocked my woeldvieq a bit this morning.

Then I moved on down Twitter row and discovered thanks to Mager.

Then I wrote this post.

All that without getting put of bed. And somewhere in all these facts, and the fact that I accessed them all from a device smaller than my hand, is a SciFi story that sells like hotcakes in 1955, and a signpost to the future.
All that without

February 24, 2008: 2:47 pm: Commentary, software

Today I turned on the Windows Media Center for the first time in a month. That’s o knock on the media center. We’ve been too busy to watch much TV, and what time we have had has been consumed by Lost, the new Apple TV software and the occasional Netflix movie.

So whatever. I wanted a little music on a rainy Sunday morning, and the Media Center has ever tune in our CD library. I fired it up and immediately got the Vista update notice. Right. I missed the last patch Tuesday.

I postponed that, but when I launched iTunes to listen to music, IT decided it needed to update mys usic library. I’d forgotten I’d updated iTunes the last time I used it and never restarted. Then of course there’s a NEW version of iTunes. Why not?! Go ahead iTunes, do your business. I’ll jump on over to Firefox and stream some music off Last.FM. Jus give me a second to postpone the Vista update. Again!

Launch Firefox and guess what? I’m immediately notified there’s an update of Firefox. I mark that for later and start streaming some music. During breakfast I have to get up a couple times because I forgot to turn off the Vista reminder. But no matter.

Once I’m done with my Canadian bacon (or just bacon, if you’re Canadian) and waffles, I give up and tell Firefox to go ahead and update, then reboot the machine.

This after only a month! It’s one thing to be annoyed occasionally in your daily life by software updates. They’re actually quite handy, fixing bugs, and adding features. But the system is all built around daily use. It seems it’s not possible to have smoothly running machine that you don’t use every day. At least if it’s a computer you leave powered off.

I suppose that’s the future. Better find some clean-bruning fuel soon Earth. I’m going to have to leave all my comuters on from now on.

February 20, 2008: 2:46 pm: Commentary

I was thinking today about a future event. You know how when you think about future events, things always go so much better in your mind than they do in reality? Even if they go well, they never quite match up with expectations. At least for me anyway.

I think I know why.

I imagine future events as a montage. Yes, montages are overworked and cliche, but if Team America World Police taught us anything, it’s that sometimes, you need a montage.

The factor that keeps the montage alive is the fact that all boring developments are left out. The movie of your life leaves out a lot of mundanity, but the montage of your life eliminates all of it.

The solution for this is to remember things as a montage. That way every experience you have is dynamic, entertaining, and set to music.

After all, in the end, all you have is your montages.

August 10, 2007: 4:02 pm: Commentary, DRM, internet, Technology, video

I purchased a Deep Space Nine video a long time ago as part of the Google Video store. Today I got this email stating that Google was ending its program and I would no longer be able to watch my video after August 15. Google was nice enough to give me a credit of $2 towards other stuff, but still. This is going to bring another round of people around to the understanding of why DRM is crap, and we need a better way.

Here’s the email:


As a valued Google user, we're contacting you with some important
information about the videos you've purchased or rented from Google Video.
In an effort to improve all Google services, we will no longer offer the
ability to buy or rent videos for download from Google Video, ending the
DTO/DTR (download-to-own/rent) program. This change will be effective
August 15, 2007.

To fully account for the video purchases you made before July 18, 2007, we
are providing you with a Google Checkout bonus for $2.00. Your bonus
expires in 60 days, and you can use it at the stores listed here: The minimum purchase
amount must be equal to or greater than your bonus amount, before shipping
and tax.

After August 15, 2007, you will no longer be able to view your purchased
or rented videos.

If you have further questions or requests, please do not hesitate to
contact us. Thank you for your continued support.


The Google Video Team

May 1, 2007: 11:31 pm: Commentary, Technology

Right now I’m risking breaking the law. Why? Because I’m about to type this:

09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0 09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0 09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0 09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0 09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0 09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0

Yep that series of numbers is against the law for me to type and post publicly? Why? It’s just a hex code, I know. It could mean anything. In fact it describes these colors –
Hex Colors
But it also describes something else. A certain encryption code that the movie industry doesn’t want known.

This is an excellent example of why these kinds of encryption schemes don’t work as law. It’s code. Code can be reverse engineered, repurposed, and reused. You just can’t make the code itself illegal. It’s information. Making it illegal is meaningless. It’s certainly reasonable to make breaking encryption illegal, but you can’t stop information, especially digital info.

So Digg gets into trouble because people can use it for what it’s for, spreading information.

Meanwhile it’s perfectly legal to post information on how to pick locks. It’s legal to post info on the basics of making nuclear bombs. It’s legal and it should be legal to explain how to make a homemade bomb. But it’s illegal for me to type that hex code up there. Priorities are way out of whack.

October 27, 2005: 4:16 pm: Commentary

I would demand new business conditions but that would mean talking to people. My fundamental complaint is that mass markets are unfair to people who hate people. The only way for me to turn my great ideas into money-making is to have them publicised and then loved by lots of people.

But I don’t want that.

I want to have great ideas, execute them and have them make me money. But I don’t want people to have to like them. I don’t want people to have to find them brilliant. That’s why I introduce to you Web 3.0.

In Web 3.0 all you have to do is post something on the web, anything, and it will generate cash flow. I am looking for business capital to get this idea rolling.

In Web 3.0 misanthropes rule. You don’t have to network. You don’t have to discuss. You don’t have to have ties to some self-indulgent pretentious ‘community’ or other. You are your community. And that’s all you need. And all others will just leave you alone thank you very much.

Web 3.0 will be built on cross-platofrm isolated synergie. It will use the power of millions of antisocial individuals to create a new economy of separation. Unlike the wisdom of the crowds, the driver of this economy will not be mass movement but leveraged isolationism. Technology will assume the interactions that we have heretofore left in the hands of humanity. Instead each content creator publishes and Web 3.0 makes sure the content is distributed and compensated for.

At Misantech we’re looking for funding. Get in on the ground floor of the next big trend to hit the Net. Web 3.0 is here now in bedrooms across the world. Join it.

March 6, 2005: 6:01 pm: Commentary

It occurs to me today that spam may undermine some of the principles of existentialism. Not in the personal sense, of course, which is the core of the philosophy. Spam will not extinguish existentialism. The American education system can do that just fine.

Here’s what I mean.

My interpretation of some of Sartre’s writing on the subject is that we must all choose what we think should be done in any case, even if the effects are not immediately different. He uses war as an example. Even if not protesting a war seems to have no different effect than protesting it, a man must follow his conscience. Making the choice even if it has no immediate practical effect is important.

My idea of why this makes sense is that if everyone did follwo their conscience then the percentage of people who acted that way would make a difference even if a minority.

Sartre was referring to World War II. But let’s apply the principle to the much more mundane problem of spam. If everyone in the world ignored spam, didn’t even open it and deleted it, there would be no more spam, or very little of it. Even at the low cost of sending spam, if there were no return it would be abandone.

Spam exists because the tiniest of tiny percentages open the email and an even tinier percentage respond. Although in some particular cases the percentages aren’t as small as one would hope. The cost of sending spam is so low, that even this tiny percentage is enough to make the enterprise profitable for the perpetrators.

So bringing it back ’round to exitentialism, if I make my choice not to open and answer spam, my hope would be that I and enough other people would be able to have a slowing effect on it. That is not the case. Even if 99% of all email recipients followed my principle, there would still eb spam. Nothing but full 100% response can inhibit it. So it reduces my action to one of symbolism only with not only no immediate effect but no effect at all. The only effect of not opening and answering spam is the effect of having the amount of spam I get rise at a slightly slower rate.

So my spam-reading decisions become consigned to the realm of philosophy with no practical effect at all. I realise that this may still be within the parameters of existentialism, but it is much less compelling than the example where I’d at least have an idealistic chance of stopping the war.

In the example of the war, there is a reality that if everyone who agreed with me acted as I did, there might be a chance to stop/change/start the war, whatever it is I wanted. The impracticality is getting everyone to act on their own conscience. I know there are enough people who agree with me, it’s a social change.

With spam, even if 99% agree AND act on their conscience it’s not enough. There’s someone out ther who likes spam and in a universe as large as that of email users it doesn’t have to be a big percentage to render the actions of the overwhelming mahority useless.

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