Mirko Tobias Schäfer / Assistant Professor
University of Utrecht Department for Media and Culture Studies

Homework: The Extension of the    
Culture Industry

One basic assumption of cultural production in the digital age has to be that every product using computer technology is open to modifi cation. If an electronic consumer product is released to the market, users will fi nd ways to adapt this product to suit their needs or fi nd new uses for the product. Game consoles often get cracked because the kids want to play copied games, just as DVD players get cracked because customers want to play every region code on their product. But the Nintendo Gameboy was hacked to turn it into a music editor, so it can be used as a DJ tool. There are several enthusiasts producing Gameboy music, such as the Gameboyzz Orchestra1 from Poland and the Vienna Gameboy Music Club. [1] The robotic vacuum cleaner Roomba has attracted the attention of several users, because it offers the possibility for experimenting with pricey robot technology and the iPod was hacked for porting Linux on it. [2] Competent users are able to change a released product or even develop an alternative one. Companies will in return use the ideas of users and integrate their modifications into the products. The use of software is therefore not that different from changing or developing products. The process of reading and writing of software requires the same tools and causes no extra costs. The  following examples illustrate that this practice is common in several user communities.

Xbox Linux

The Microsoft Xbox is more than just a game console. Equipped with a hard drive, a stripped down version of Windows 2000 and a processor, an Xbox is actually a personal computer. Microsoft restricted the possibilities of the product in such a way that it is only useable as a game console according to Microsoft’s product definition. The Xbox Linux Project is a group of programmers and hackers who decided to open the box and turn it into a universal Turing Machine which could execute a personal computer’s usual tasks. Project maintainer Michael Steil, an informatics student from Germany, says that the group members’ main motivation is a competitive interest in hacking the Xbox and running Linux on it. Several members of the project were not into gaming at all, but rather into the hands-on work of making a black box compatible with Linux and opening it up for extended usage.

The software for the modified Xbox was developed mainly by six people who received support from various interested parties. The organisation of the project was maintained via the Internet, where the project’s website formed the central platform and meetings in the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) which allowed discussions and project planning among the members. To modify the Xbox, a so- called ‘mod chip’ was necessary to disable the Microsoft-only hardware. Such modified chips are also in use for running DVDs or copied games on a game console. The aim of the Xbox project was to find a way to run Linux without requiring installation of a modchip. The plan for hacking the box without using a modchip became a competition, with a €100.000 award donated by an anonymous person. It turned out that this person was Michael Robertson, former mp3.com founder and CEO and Lindows founder and CEO. In March 2003 the hacker Habibi_xbox won the competition by knocking out the box by  causing a buffer overflow. After disabling the Microsoft software it was possible to execute any code (Becker 2003).

The Xbox Linux project website states:
‘The Xbox is a legacy-free PC by Microsoft that consists of an Intel Celeron 733 MHz CPU, 64 MB of RAM, a 8/10 GB hard disk, a DVD drive and 10/100 Ethernet. As on every PC, you can run Linux on it. An Xbox with Linux can be a full desktop computer with mouse and keyboard, a web/email box connected to TV, a server or router or a node in a cluster.’ [3]
A well-written step-by-step guide is helping new users to improve their product, and for those who do not feel able to follow the instructions a service is offered by project members to modify the consoles for free.

The discursive labour of product modification is interesting. As well as the meaningful use of technology that contributes to the formation of communities and the generation of meaning for their participants, we can recognise an ideological contribution to the discourse on technology in the graphic
representation of the Xbox Linux Project . The welcome slide of the Xbox Linux software states: ‘Welcome to your box. For the first time the box you paid for can do what you want it to do: as the owner you are where you should be - in control’, emphasising authorship as a natural aspect of ownership. In the next sentence on the welcome slide the developers refer to the symbolic capital of Linux, stating that with Linux the user will plug ‘into a world of sharing and contributing can e part of a worldwide community where ideas and software are free’ (see, Xbox-Linux Welcome Slide).

Aibohack

When Sony introduced the robot dog AIBO in 1999 there was no doubt that several artificial intelligence enthusiasts would start to play around with this sophisticated gadget. The AIBO was equipped with sensors, a camera, a memory stick, 16 MB RAM and a 32 bit processor, and able to  learn in a limited way. The owner of the product is required to take care of the electronic pet as if it  were a Tamagotchi. Everything about the dog should fit to the family friendly image the product definition had defined. There were even claims that the dog was unable to raise its head for more than 20° because Sony wanted to avoid up skirt camera views (Röttgers 2001).

One of the first who wanted to expand the limited possibilities of the pricey toy was the hacker Aibopet, who purchased one of the first AIBOs. He spent almost a year hacking the software and developing his first modifications. Aibopet offered these programs on his website Aibohack.com free to download. Thanks to Aibopet’s work it became possible to let AIBO dance, to imitate the robot Bender from the popular TV-series Futurama and to program it with a simple editor. A dynamic community emerged around Sony’s expensive product, discussing everything concerning AIBO, helping each other to maintain the product, fixing problems and sharing their ideas of the robot technology on user websites, such as Aibo-life.com, Aibosite.com or Aiboworld.co.uk. The hacker Aibopet claims to spend a lot of time providing support to users - a support Sony is unable to offer. The demand for support increases every time Sony releases a new AIBO. One motivation for Aibopet is to help less skilled users to shape their electronic companion the way they like. The modifications Aibopet and other  hackers are offering provide the necessary tools to redefine the purchased product and to reclaim  cultural freedom as a user.

In October 2001 Sony threatened Aibopet with lawsuits for copyright infringement. Consequently Aibopet closed the download area of Aibohack. com. This caused a very interesting dynamic reaction. Aibopet published Sony’s threatening letter on his website and announced the closure of his download area on several AIBO user websites. Within a day the message was spread and was even discussed on Slashdot.org, the most prestigious platform for news on computer technology and culture. [4]  Within a week the mainstream media, such as LA Times, The Washington Post, Wired, etc., picked up on the story and published articles about angry AIBO users (see Fig. 1). The LA Times article was further distributed through several mailing lists.

User groups were launching online petitions and calling for boycotting Sony products. Mailing lists such as Nettime were spreading articles on the subject and discussing the threat to the cultural freedom of users. Sony noticed users reacting as a heterogeneous, dynamic and uncontrollable multitude, expressing their right to define the products they purchased the way they wanted. It became obvious that the user groups were doing a good job in organising support services for the AIBOs by  themselves. Sony’s management changed its policy and in a visionary decision accepted the  collaborative work of user communities.

Sony announced the intention to produce an open programming tool kit for the AIBO, expecting that this could meet the expectations of users in programmable gadgets. It seems obvious that user communities are providing serious research and development work. According to Aibopet, Sony integrated several of his modifications into the newer AIBO releases.

Aibohack.com and Xbox Linux Project are only two out of countless examples of the modification of electronic consumer products. Both examples make clear that products in the digital age become more like processes. A ready-to-use product conforming to a supplier’s product definition is replaced by a reading/ writing process in usage (Lévy 1997: 121-2). Users start to define the product by  implementing it in their personal social context and creating a certain form of meaning by the do-it-yourself process of modification and further development. Although this is done by a minority of users, this phenomenon describes a cultural practice which seems common for computer technology and software culture. This technological avant-garde of users can be considered very important in establishing a cultural practice. By trial and error these people deal with the technology and its potential to open up possibilities for further development and innovation. This ‘hands-on-technology’ part of the discourse can also be used as an example and proof of the success of the collaborative working processes that the open source movement enthusiastically embraces. Furthermore, the user communities experimenting with software confirm the value of collaborative work, modifications and re-engineering as innovative practice.

Homework works!

The computer networks and the availability of software, cultural artefacts and production tools extend the cultural industry into the user’s living rooms. Footage of code, pictures, text, news, movies and sound are shared, reassembled and used for further productivity. An enormous output of this creativity is available for free and is circulating outside the established production and distribution channels of the content industries. Since production does not require expensive tools and infrastructures and since reproduction and distribution are available almost for free, a whole industry seems to be less and less relevant. The prescribed ‘medicinal bath’ of the cultural industry can easily be avoided, because of the growing amount of alternative cultural artefacts. The process of cultural production in the digital age leads to a blurring of professional and amateur producers (Jenkins 2002).

To a great extent, content production and software development takes place outside the established industries. This is caused by the decreasing prices of computers and the increasing availability of software. People can easily produce content and far more easily distribute it. Voluntary work as a single person, or as a community, is the main labour force behind cultural production on the Internet. It seems obvious that companies will have trouble to keep up with this production, distributed through a multitude of users and communities, running on low cost technologies and pervasive distribution.

However, two contradictory trends become apparent while analysing this form of cultural production. Firstly, big companies (e.g. Disney, Bertelsmann, Microsoft, etc.) are trying to push restrictive copyright laws which would stifle the production and innovation of community based production, and secondly, companies will try to exploit this cultural reservoir for their own purposes
(without sharing the revenues).

The games industry is largely using the communities of gamers as an extended research and development department. Often users devise new game ideas and settings, developing these ideas as playable modifications of released games. In fact, several of the latest publications on the game market were games that were adopted and further developed from user modifications. The popular game series Battlefield 1942 was enhanced by ‘mods’ as Desert Combat or Battlefield Vietnam, transforming the basic idea of a Second World War first person shooter into the setting of Vietnam and Iraq. [5]

Taking the cultural production of users for free or even worse to integrate it into the companies’ intellectual property and thereby binding it to restrictive copyright laws could suppress this voluntary labour. The GNU General Public Licence of the Free Software Foundation is an attempt to avoid such
mistreatment. [6] Every product or program licensed under the GPL may be modified and further developed but every derivate coming out it is strictly bound to this license. While the GPL is mainly suitable for software, among several other examples the Creative Commons licenses was developed  for describing bythe-time-copyrights for content productions. The Creative Commons, founded by  Lawrence Lessig, is a valuable attempt to combine copyright with the culture of copy and paste. [7]

One could argue that the latest developments in the European Parliament (the passing of the controversial directive on restrictive copyrights and software patents), which were profoundly influenced by lobby organisations, require a necessary discussion of the monopolies’ influence on culture and democracy. Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s culture industry perfectly describes a monopolistic,
unidirectional organised industry. But since the 1980s valuable cultural/technological production and distribution also takes place outside these structures. The current situation might be rather described as the forces of monopoly versus society.

The problems arising in the field of copyright and patent law are probably caused by the culture clash between the understanding of cultural production in the industrial age and the one in the digital age. It would be necessary to formulate positions that describe collaborative working processes as a cultural practice that society should accept and defend. The democratic decision process could ask for a leitmotif in technological development that supports open standards, open source software, transparent working processes and a dynamic and powerful public domain as cultural resource.

Notes

  1. Gameboyzz Orchestra <http://www.gameboyzz.com>, and see herein; Vienna Gameboy Music Club <http://www.gameboymusicclub.org/>.
  2. Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner <http://www.roombacommunity.com/>; iPod hacked for Linux <http://ipodlinux.sourceforge.net/>.
  3. Xbox Linux project <http://www.xbox-linux.org/Main_Page> (2004).
  4. The post on the Sony case at Slashdot.org caused a discussion with over 400 comments <http://yro.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=01/10/28/005233&tid=159&tid=17>.
  5. For more information on game mods, see Nieborg (2004) <http://www.gamespace.nl/content/CommodificationNieborg2004.pdf>.
  6. Free Software Foundation <http://www.fsf.org>; GNU General Public License <http://www.fsf.org/licenses/gpl.html>.
  7. The Creative Commons Licenses <http://www.creativecommons.org> are already in use in the USA, Germany, the Netherlands and Brazil.

References

Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer (1987 [1947]) ‘Dialektik der Aufklärung’, in Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften Bd. 5: Dialektik der Aufklärung und Schriften 1940-1950, Frankfurt a.M: Fischer.

David Becker (2003) ‘Hacker cracks Xbox challenge’, in News.com, http://news.com.com/2100-1043-994794.html.

Manuel Castells (2001) The Internet Galaxy, New York: Oxford University Press.

Henry Jenkins (2002) ‘Interactive Audiences?’, in D. Harries (ed.), The New Media Book, London: BFI Publishing.

Lawrence Lessig (2002) The Future of Ideas, New York: Vintage.

Lawrence Lessig (2004) Free Culture, New York: Penguin Press, http://www.free-culture.cc.

Pierre Lévy (1997) Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace, New York: Plenum Trade.

David Nieborg (2004) Who put the mod into commodification?, unpublished paper,  http://www.gamespace.nl/content/CommodificationNieborg2004.pdf.

Arnold Pacey (1983) The Culture of Technology, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Arnold Pacey (2001) Meaning in Technology, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Janko Röttgers (2001) ‘Hack the Dog’, in Telepolis, http://www.telepolis.de/tp/deutsch/inhalt/co/11369/1.html.

Neil Selwyn (2002), Defining the ‘Digital Divide’: Developing a Theoretical Understanding of Inequalities in the Information Age, Cardiff, http://www.cf.ac.uk/scosi/ict/definingdigitaldivide.pdf.

Date January 2005 Category Publications

Homework: The Extension of the Culture Industry, in: Cox, Geoff et al. (eds): DATA Browser 01, Economising Culture; published by autonomedia 2004, pp 191-199

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