Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Of Happiness and Copyrights

Thinking that the good life of sitting on my ass in Belgium, eating dark chocolate, drinking blonde beer, and spending quality time with my new wife just wasn't good enough, I hopped on a plane yesterday bound for Glasgow. The trip, thus far, has proven more interesting than I'd anticipated.

For starters, upon the recommendation of K., I read Will Ferguson's novel, Happiness. While I'm not completely sold on Ferguson's writing style -- when he's funny, I'm laughing out loud, but the jokes and the irony often fall very flat very quickly (esp. his Boomer v. Gen-X schtick) -- he has really made his own the 'beware what you wish for' archetype. The premise is quite simple: what would happen if, by luck or malevolence, there was a self-help book that actually worked. Ferguson's answer is just as simple: utter apocalypse. He makes a very good case that cynicism, disappointment, and anxiety are not simply inherent parts of life, but actually constitute the essence of life's beauty and truth. (My biggest criticism is that he he goes out of his way, repeatedly and explicitly, to make sure the reader GETS this point.)

A hilarious, and perhaps even poignant, bit is when the protagonist's wife learns and adopts the dynamic sex tips recommended by the book, making every night a multiple orgasmic experience for both him and her ... perfect sexual union and bliss, each and every night, by sheer rote. What he discovers, however, is that he misses the anxiety about his skinny body, the sweaty ambivalence of illicit affairs, the terror of regret, the clumsy movements of hands and tongues -- that THESE are the essence of sex, not bliss. Indeed, he learns that the pursuit of happiness, and the necessary disappointment that entails, is the stuff of true life -- not its actual achievement. I may quibble with the details of his point, and certain the didactic way in which he makes it, but I think he is mostly right.

I read most of Happiness on the plane to Prestwick, and then on the train to Glasgow. After that, I made a mad dash for Glasgow's other train station, knocking pensioners and ruddy faced children out of the way with my bag filled with 1 kg of chocolate, and caught a connection to Edinburgh. On Monday, I'd happened to notice that Cory Doctorow was lecturing over there at the University on the subject of electronic / internet copyright. Now, while I only know a little about modern technology, enough to be dangerous (to myself) but not enough to be especially helpful or insightful, and I know next to nothing at all about copyright law, electronic or otherwise, Doctorow's instantly classic talk on DRM [Digital Rights (or Restrictions) Management] at Microsoft's Research Group earlier this year had me at hello. (n.b.: More on DRM here.)

Already a fan, and eager to learn more, I was more than happy to lug my baggage and empty belly across Scotland. Doctorow didn't say anything radically new, per se, as even I found myself nodding, along with the people around me, in acknowledged agreement at a point that I'd already read somewhere else, though I might've misunderstood why they were nodding, and succumbed to peer pressure once again; and yet neither was it a complete rehash of the stuff I'd already read. Especially interesting for me was his discussion of the mindblowing developments in radio wave (that's not one word, is it?) manipulation and surfing, which has the potential, legality notwithstanding, to change the way we listen to music (i.e., conceivably, one could download to your computer all the available FM music stations at any one time and place), surf the web (i.e., Wi-Fi stuff, which I only vaguely understand), or even cook our food (i.e., something to do with microwave ovens, though I must confess I didn't quite understand this particular reference, and thus have no clue what the implications are of this technology for my tv dinners). I also had no idea about the extent to which media outlets were seeking the right to claim a copyright hold on the broadcast of something that would otherwise be in the public domain. (N.b.: This is how I understood what he said. If somebody knows better, please correct me.) If this is truly the case, as the EFF [Electronic Frontier Foundation] is teaching me with each visit to their site, this stuff really matters. Of course, an eighty-minute lecture isn't the panacea to the appalling level of my ignorance about such topics, so I still don't profess to know much about electronic copyright law; but, as with technology, I know enough to be dangerously incompetent with what I do know. Thanks, Cory.

And now I'm back in Glasgow, rested, fed, and excited to see friends that, in a couple of weeks, I very likely won't see for about a year, if not more. Ah melancholy ... the stuff of life. I hope that truth's not already copyrighted, too.