Ditch the Walled Gardens

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Tagged as tech, technology, spotify, funkwhale, walled gardens, rant, art
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A couple of years ago, I cancelled my Spotify subscription. In fact, I completely discontinued my use of the platform. My reasoning at the time seemed petty, but everything I've learned and listened to since has convinced me that this was the right way to go.

Back in those days, I didn't really have a problem with Spotify. I am a musician myself, so I wanted to contribute to my favourite musicians even though I lacked the funds to buy every new album. Spotify seemed to answer this desire with its vast catalogue and seemingly reasonable subscription fee model (as well as its ad-funded "free" model), so I happily paid month-to-month for access to this service and thought no more of it in the over 1 year I stayed with the service.

I can't remember exactly which album it was (I want to say They Might Be Giants' The Spine, but I wouldn't swear to it in court), but something up and disappeared one day with no warning. Something to which I had previously had access and something which was previously present in my playlists and radios was just... gone. My guess is that there was some licensing dispute or contract expiry that led to this, but it was that event that made me realise quite clearly that I meant nothing to this company and had no say over its operation, to the point where things would simply be removed without so much as a by-your-leave or an offer to compensate for the loss.

In many ways I am thankful for this. After all, it was this that set me free from Spotify's disgusting clammy grasp and set me on my search for a self-hosted alternative - a search which would lead me to Funkwhale, a project with which I work and for which I have a great deal of love. In all honesty, I hadn't really thought about Spotify in a long time until very recently when somebody brought up the subject of podcasts in Funkwhale following the 0.21 release. They mentioned that a certain podcast (The Last Podcast on the Left) had gone Spotify-exclusive, and were expressing disappointment that this would mean they couldn't load it in to a Funkwhale channel.

I must have known, in the back of my head, that Spotify might do something like this. It's the kind of shitty thing that successful technology companies are wont to do, after all. But I was still surprised that it had actually happened. I went and did some reading up about it on various forums and was horrified by some of the dismayed responses of the show's fans, who expressed disappointment not only at the fact that they didn't like Spotify as a platform, but also that some people would simply be unable to access the content now due to the fact that Spotify does not operate in certain countries.

Podcasts and the Point

I will admit I'm not the biggest consumer of podcasts. In fact, up until the last few years I've listened to very few indeed. However, I've known about them for about as long as they've been around. Podcasting is an interesting idea: an asynchronous radio broadcast that can be mirrored and spread across the world using a set of standard tools that anybody can use and build from. This kind of open process makes the medium very disruptive and far-reaching; the concept can be applied with very affordable and easily-accessed tools and isn't limited by licensing. It's ideal for underground radio, sensitive ideas, and entertaining conversations of all kinds.

Why, then, are we so quick to give this up?

On the part of podcasters, I kind of understand it. The process of creating regular shows with research/writing/editing etc. is one that is not without expense. Some podcasts eventually become businesses unto themselves, and these require sponsorship or other means of funding so that the creators can continue to work on the project full-time. In step companies like Spotify, Apple, Google, etc. who can wave fat stacks of cash around knowing full well that they will be boosting their subscriptions massively by bringing these shows on board in an exclusive contract. This all makes sense. What doesn't make sense is that people actually do pay. People are happy to switch to Spotify and either buy a subscription or listen to the ad-supported service, accepting that this is just how it is now. Why? Do we not see that the move made by these creators completely defeats the purpose of the medium?

I remember writing an article in university about how television - by its original definition - is not and can never be art. It was a contentious and sophomoric piece, rather less well thought out and more forceful than I am proud to admit, but the kernel of the idea still rings true to me. Art is expressive, subversive, and highly individual. Film can be produced out of an individual's pocket and distributed by shining a projection in a home or on the streets, painting can be achieved with a range of materials and shown anywhere, music can be performed live or recorded with very rudimentary equipment etc. etc. Television? No. By definition television must be produced by companies and is inherently stunted by this fact. To get access to the platform of contemporary television, one needs the help of a network of some description, or a public access channel with its own set of rules. You can make videos, of course, but these are not television until and unless they reach a television set. That is the meaning of television and by that meaning it can only be as subversive as it is allowed to be.

The point of all of this is that podcasting is not television. By definition it is not restricted by corporate interests or rules created by external parties. Just like other artforms it can be cheaply produced and shared without defying the meaning of the platform. To have a podcast be platform exclusive and inaccessible to the wider public means that it is no longer a podcast: it is corporate radio.

The Technology Industry

The technology industry as a whole is despicable and disgusting. Allying engineering and software development with marketing and a corporate agenda is an inherently dystopian idea. Technologists on the whole are generally just interested in the creation of new things and making things work in interesting new ways. But just as a scientist may see only fascination and intrigue in the study of subatomic particles and radiation, a military will see a weapon. So too is it with the technology industry. Knowing of humanity's propensity for laziness and the desire to make our terrible lives slightly easier, companies coax technologists into creating modern marvels and then wield them as weapons of enslavement to bleed an unsuspecting public of their life blood while simultaneously patting themselves on the back and wrapping an arm around you as they whisper "see? We LOVE you" through a serpentine smile.

The technology industry is not, of course, alone in all of this. The difference between it and other industries is that the correct way of doing things, the moral and correct way, exists and has been a viable alternative for years. The free software movement exists for the express purpose of providing people with a way to use their technology without getting proverbially fisted by companies and used as a ghoulish, grinning puppet spewing dollar bills from its mouth. But marketing is a powerful thing and is not to be underestimated. At every turn, free software is dismissed as not shiny enough, too hippyish, too geeky. The shiny shiny is what I desire. Only later do people realise how bad things are getting, but by then the walls are closing in behind them and the exit is too small to see.

When I worked in the education sector I was always dismayed by the UK's acceptance of proprietary software as tools of teaching. Students would learn to create in Adobe Creative Cloud (which, as a former editor, I can assure you is just about the worst fucking tool you could ever have the displeasure of using) and would then be left in the cold once they left if they could no longer afford to pay the monthly fee to access it. Similarly, tools like Office365 are imprinted upon people from an early age as a necessity, something which will always be needed. Of course, if you can't afford it you're shit out of luck and frankly not good enough as a human being to join the normal world that the British education system paints for you. Once again, control of education and creativity being handed to companies who care about nought but the coin is an inherently evil idea, and the way these companies lock you in by design is an inherently evil act.

Art and technology are natural bedfellows, but art and the technology industry is a match made in a level of hell Dante was too afeared to even dream of devising. Handing art over to powerful companies with not only the hand rubbing greed of a bottomless pit wrapped in the body of a pig but also an army of intelligent and subservient - or worse, willing - technologists is about the worst thing we as a species can do. I know that people despise slippery slopes, but they are a very real thing and we are already slipping down this one. Just as television requires you cowtow yourself to a company or collective, so too does releasing art on walled garden platforms such as Apple, Spotify, Google, Netflix. By putting your creations on these platforms, you are announcing only that they have been deemed okay by those companies.

I understand that there is a difficult balance to be struck here. Artists need to earn money to live, as do technologists. But an artist who ceases to make art is no longer an artist, and a technologist who works making proprietary software to further nothing but a corporate agenda is always making the wrong decision and is culpable for the actions of its employer. As Drew DeVault recently said in a blog post:

Mass surveillance, contempt of the law, tax evasion, oppression of the poor, of minorities… this is what our industry is known for, and it’s our fault... But, maybe you would object, maybe you would have the courage to say “no” when asked to do these things. Maybe you would, but someday, a cool project will come across your inbox - machine learning! Big data! Cloud scale! It’s everything you were promised when you took the job, and have more fun with it for a few months than you have had in a long time. Your superiors are thrilled - “it’s perfect!”, they say, and it’s not until they take it and start feeding it real-world data that you realize exactly what you have built. Doublethink quickly steps in to protect your ego from the cognitive dissonance, and you take another little step towards becoming the person you once swore never to be.

To Summarise

This has been a long and rambling rant, and I don't promise it makes any real sense (I'm not really going to bother going back to edit/proofread it too much). In the course of the post the point changes frequently, but the gist is something that plays on my mind a lot as a creator and a technologist.

To Spotify and its employees: what you do is evil, and it will always be evil no matter how you try to paint it. You exist solely to take control from creators, money from audiences, and dignity from yourselves. The same goes for the rest of the big companies daring to get involved with art: get your filthy tentacles away from us.

To artists: please look in to free software solutions. They exist, they are very good, and best of all the technology is not created to the specifications of a literal cave goblin.