I’m feeling pretty jazzed at the moment about patronage as a funding model for creative endeavours.

It’s a pretty simple idea: instead of today’s dominant practice, where creative works are funded and owned by someone expecting to make money back from advertising or sales through a limited distribution channel, under patronage, creators fund their work by appealing directly to potential fans, asking them to put up funds in advance in return for various rewards and input into the work. Historically, patronage was widespread, and meant that artists, musicians, and philosophers gathered in the courts of sympathetic nobles to seek funding, lending their creativity to the glory of kings and emperors. In return, nobles gained prestige as patrons of the arts as well as substantial influence over the works created.

Today’s patronage models are a little different, in that they rely on a much more broader base of patrons. Instead of seeking out extremely wealthy individuals to fund entire works, creators can appeal to a worldwide audience through the internet, collecting many small contributions directly from the people who care most about their work. This is a good thing for creators and patrons alike:

  • Patrons are more likely to receive satisfying entertainment, as their preferences factor directly into the creator’s decision making process.
  • Creators have a guaranteed audience of fans in the form of their patrons. Since creators often labor under artistic motivations, this can mean a lot – it’s easier to feel confident in one’s creations if you know that others like the general idea. In other words, it’s easier to take risks.
  • There is greater opportunity for ‘pure’ creative vision as middlemen who muddy the waters by pandering to advertisers and the lowest common denominator are eliminated.
  • Creators are encouraged to think about their works upfront, and their ideas are subject to initial scrutiny that can validate and refine them. There’s less chance of groupthink, and a more articulate design process.
  • Niche genres can thrive, particularly if they’re willing to start out small and run lean. Projects that address many fewer fans can be funded.
  • The public domain is richer. Since funding is provided up front by patrons, there’s less reason for creators not to put their work in the public domain, enriching us all. In particular, it makes it easier for non-fans to try out things they wouldn’t normally buy, potentially converting them into fans.

It might be that patronage isn’t the best funding model for all creative works, but here’s a few examples where it’s been successful:

  • Kickstarter is a thriving internet example. Through it, I’ve contributed to open source recordings of classical music, RPG-themed short films, and comics. Their model allows creators to make proposals through video and written presentations, to offer rewards for patrons at different levels, and to selectively fund projects based on whether a sufficient amount is raised. Projects range from a few hundred dollars to several million, and support from computer games to music, crafts to special events, and gadgets to fine art.
  • Most modern orchestras run on a hybrid patronage / ticket fee model. The Seattle Symphony, for example, runs an annual budget of $24m on about half ticket sales, half patronage. Patrons get additional benefits such as social events, access to musicians, and lectures, as well as a certain level of prestige (much as noble patrons once did).
  • Wolfgang Baur’s Open Design project does tabletop RPG design on a patronage model, allowing patrons to participate in the design process, democratizing not only the funding, but also the creativity itself.

There are many more – these are just the few I’ve paid close attention to.

As traditional publishing industries that rely on firmly controlled distribution of hard-copy works continue to erode, it’ll be very interesting to see how patronage evolves. The fact that big box book stores are dying doesn’t mean people don’t want to read, and the collapse of newspapers has little to do with the public’s interest in the news. It’s just that the old business models are increasingly being undermined. I don’t foresee corporate creative endeavours going away, but I do expect them to become less dominant in the long term, and patronage seems a likely means of that happening.

Questions for comments:

  • If patronage comes to dominate creative endeavour, what negative implications might there be?
  • Are there any creative domains in which patronage won’t work?
  • Is it possible to fund really big projects (AAA game titles, movies, cathedrals) with patronage?

Posted in Concepts, Economics, Science & Technology, The Future | 2 Comments »

Clearly I’ve got work to do, because I’m procrastinating with blog posts.

#include<speculative comments about motivation>

Interesting piece about the futurist implications of the promising new technologies on the horizon becoming corporate controlled walled-gardens, much as everything is now. It’s clear that some level of profit driven development is good, as it spurs innovation, but it’s also clear that too much moves to stifle innovation. To me, it seems that the iPhone is an example that’s swinging to the stifling end of the spectrum.

I have an iPhone, and I like it, but in some ways I regret buying it – had I known about the imminent release of Android phones back in Sept last year, I would have waited. Aside from the overly optimistic prospect of me writing apps for Android, owning the iPhone makes me feel slightly dirty, like I’ve just been sent a particularly glossy membership card to the NZ National party or some other vaguely nefarious organization. Despite their clear skill at aesthetics and design, Apple just seem sinister to me. It must be all the fanboys. Organizations that have and encourage a cult-like following always disturb me.

From the article:

I say that the iPhone is not the future, but what I mean by that is that the iPhone is not representative of a future I want to see. The future is not just a retail opportunity and a finer world is not built entirely of consumer goods. I’m not keen on a future where the major technologies of environmental and social mediation are owned and controlled by corporate ideology. As AR creeps closer and closer, the question of who gets to plant a flag in the liminal space of a technologically re-mediated environment becomes a more pressing concern – with new horizons there are always new forms of colonialism.

Interesting comments and discussions. Here’s mine:

Let’s assume we’re talking about the actions that a certain group or subculture can take to adapt these future unfriendly devices for themselves – aboniks is totally right that we can’t somehow convince the mass body public that the abridgement of rights they are barely aware of in the first place is enough reason for them to give up their shiny toys and stop responding emotionally to well crafted marketing. That’s just human nature, and immutable, at least for now.

Granted, the principle of openness could be crafted into a compelling message that might slowly challenge these closed cultures, but that’s an eternal vigilance problem – we’d have to have to resources to push our message on a similar scale, push it hard, and keep pushing it. If we were really capable manipulators, we could try dressing it up in religious clothes, but again, that’s not something a small group of hackers can easily do (though I’m always for starting a cult of technology).

This is all just paraphrasing of the old maxim “show, don’t tell”. Open source and future friendly systems and devices need to beat closed systems at their own game. We have to design systems, devices, whatever it is we design to be more usable, more focused, more elegant, more aesthetically pleasing, and with not necessarily more features, but better and more applicable features.

So, what can we do? Design stuff. Make stuff. Publicize everything we do. Help each other make stuff. Get past ego – it’s not about designing things to make one person or one subgroup look awesome, it’s about designing things to help us all move forward. Hack things. Publish our hacks. Design our creations to work together. Establish open de facto standards before the big corporates come in and foist closed ones upon us. Put every good idea in the commons, and make that commons so visible that patent inspectors can’t help but notice it. Encourage our children.

Some of that’s really practical, some of that’s philosophical. I think both are necessary – ideology without designs is just pretentious pap, design without ideology is all to easily co-opted by the greedy.

Edit: Seems that, two years ago, when I posted this, I left out the link to the original article. How stupid of me.

Posted in Science & Technology, The Future, Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

I’ve been involved with the Orion’s Arm Universe Project for almost 9 years now, almost since its inception.

In that time, it’s grown from a mailing list of 10 or so to a thriving community with about 60 active contributors, a board of 10, over a thousand people signed up on the mailing list, and something over a million words of canon source material. Not to mention several side projects including an island, “Port Moravec“, in Second Life, an RPG under development, and an ezine called Voices: Future Tense.

What is Orion’s Arm, then? A few snippets from the Orion’s Arm Intro page might help..

Orion’s Arm is:
  • A collective hard science fiction world building endeavor
  • A space opera
  • A communal background for science fiction stories
  • A universe ready to be brought to life through illustration
  • A forum for cutting edge science
  • A roleplaying setting
  • A transhumanist projection of what the future might look like
  • A bunch of semi-sane sentients having fun together

Orion’s Arm is a work in progress, a space opera setting like no other. It spans the next ten thousand years of galactic history, from the near future interplanetary colonization to the far future where the galaxy is ruled by vast ascended intelligences. It incorporates hard science, the softer, social sciences, as well as mythological, archetypal themes as the gods of the collective psyche incarnate in unforseen new forms.

We’ve got two big developments underway at the moment:

The first is a new website. Despite the size of Orion’s Arm, the current website is entirely static HTML, which for those non-technically inclined people means that it can’t easily be updated en masse – there’s pages in there that haven’t been touched in five or six years. So, over the last two years, a team of us have been re-conditioning, re-organizing, and re-writing the entire site for re-release on a new website, currently in open beta at http://eg.orionsarm.com. It’s still not quite finished, but we’re scheduled to launch the new site on July 20th, Tranquility Day, the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission’s landing on the moon.

The second is a book. Last year, we held a novella competition, and got a number of great submissions. The best three have been edited by the Orion’s Arm Editors, and are now in the final stages of being published. We’re really excited about this, and hope to publish more in the future. I’m not 100% sure where copies will be sold, but they’ll almost certainly be available through our website.

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Posted in Art & Photos, The Future | 1 Comment »

Check out this rather impressive imagining of virtual world construction in a fully tangible VR / AR environment.

The interface used is quite cool and inspirational, but there’s a lot of funky interface videos out there, and the basic idea of creating worlds from within isn’t new; Snow Crash has this sort of thing, and, to some extent, it’s a logical extension and extrapolation of Wayne Piekarski’s PhD work in using AR to build 3D models on the world around us. That said, it’s a very polished imagining of this idea, and well worth the watch.

What I really liked, though, is the emotional context in which this is placed – the film’s not just a cool interface concept, but rather an example of how virtual worlds and technology might be able to provide emotional support of a sort. Effectively, the protagonist is creating worlds to embody and relive his memories. Once, our memories were limited to shared stories, then writing, then photos, then video – it seems logical that, if 3D environments and simulated experiences could be captured, then these too would be something that we collect, file away for posterity, and maybe share with our friends.

Imagine if, instead of showing wedding photos to friends who couldn’t make it, you could compellingly simulate the experience of being there.

found via Long Now

Why do I blog this?
I’ve always loved world building, and the idea of being able to easily create and experience worlds excites me. To really be compelling, though one would need to be able to create believable simulated people and animals to populate the world; as it is, the world in this video seems somewhat lonely.

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Posted in Science & Technology, The Future | No Comments »

You might have heard about the recent kerfuffle over the Facebook terms of service. If you didn’t, this brief summary from Rocketboom will get you up to speed.

Mostly, it was about whether or not you could revoke their license to use and distribute your material by deleting your account. Their argument was that they couldn’t practically delete material from their backups and, if you’d sent things to someone else, they weren’t willing to delete that material if you deleted your account. These aren’t unreasonable concerns, but their approach was to require perpetual licenses for all material and all uses. The change was far broader than needed to achieve those goals – more nuance was required in their terms. After lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth, Facebook withdrew their initial set of changes, then, a few days ago, released a re-written set of terms that appear to be much less contentious. In particular, they explicitly state ‘People should own their information’. Hear, hear.

But, that’s not the point of this post. I’m interested in the fact that they’ve chosen to release two documents; one a high-level statement of principles, the other a statement of user rights and responsibilities. Compared to the old terms, which were legalistic and dense, these documents are quite readable. This, I applaud.

It’s not entirely clear, however, which one of them represents the real terms and conditions. Which is legally binding? If there’s a conflict, which takes priority? If they’re not binding, then where are the real terms of service? Most likely, the statement of user rights and responsibilities is meant to be the binding terms and conditions.

Generally, I really like the idea of providing a human-readable license alongside a legally rigorous version, because no one really ever reads terms of service, even though they should, and at least part of the reason is that they’re generally impenetrable. If the relationship between the two is clear and there are no incongruities, then great! Of course, language often isn’t that precise, and you can see how problems might arise.

A great example of this approach is in the Creative Commons license. When they were launched, much was said about licenses being written ‘legal code’ in that we have trained engineers and machines to read and use them, being lawyers and courts respectively. Let’s run with this, and see how a few concepts from software can be applied.

Software design are just common ways of thinking and solving particular problems that crop up again and again in various contexts. They might be abstract, and pertain to the way code is written (such as the decorator and singleton patterns), or they might be more concrete features that are applied such as, for example, common interface widgets like menus, scroll bars, and drop down boxes. In some form, design patterns probably appear in everything that people design. However, in software, these patterns are explicitly sought for, studied and re-applied. I’m not aware of this being a common practice in law, but I would expect the benefits of clarity, scalability, and re-usability that this brings to software engineering would be really useful in legal engineering.

Like software, legal systems can become horribly complex. In software, a major means of reducing this complexity is to employ modularity – problems are defeated by dividing and conquering. Where possible, software consists not of a single monolith of tightly coupled code, but of hierarchically organized components that interact cohesively. Benefits of this approach are a reduction in complexity, re-usability and portability of parts, and conceptual tools for analyzing and engineering models of complex systems. Various coding paradigms exist, the best known of which is object oriented programming; aspect-oriented programming and programming by contract are other paradigms that facilitate modularity. In law, there’s obviously some modularity (law is broken down into individual acts and codes, which are broken into articles, sections, clauses and so forth). Unlike well-engineered software, however, these components are strictly hierarchical and cannot be taken out of context.

Wrappers are an example of a pattern that allows software engineers to insulate themselves from the idiosyncracies of a messy component, a third-party driver, or a piece of hardware. Basically, an engineer writes a piece of code that knows all about how to handle the mess, then presents a nice clean interface that other engineers can work with without having to learn about the details of the mess themselves. Imagine if, instead of having to read all of the messy details of a complex license, you could just inquire, through a simple, well-defined interface, if certain conditions were true.

Before any of this makes sense, it’s important to consider the difference between informal language (that which we use every day), and formal language, where the meaning of all symbols and elements is defined within a particular lexicon, much as all software languages are. That is, legal writing needs to follow formal rules. One obvious problem here is that is required to be able to address pretty much any conceivable situation; this is effectively impossible to do with formal language, as you quickly end up with self-referentiality (which then allows self-contradiction a la the Epimenides paradox). If you don’t believe me, read Hofstadter’s ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach’ first, then argue with me. To overcome this problem, then, we need to have some way of insulating the parts that can be modeled formally (effectively, the parts that are most clear and logic) from the parts that cannot (effectively, everything that’s subjective in some way). The wrapper pattern mentioned above allows for this – tokens can be used to represent subjective elements; these tokens are treated as simple propositions within the formal part of the system, then spat out at the end. Incidentally, this is how propositional logic, and almost all written reasoning works. However, lest I make this sound easy, I should mention that while, hypothetically, this is possible, it’s unclear whether or not the resulting system of formal law and subjective tokens are workable.

If, hypothetically, enough of the mechanics of law could be formalized in such a way that it can be treated computationally, all sorts of things become possible. Firstly, there no longer needs be a legal priesthood whose job it is to parse the complexities of legal argument and language and explain this to the masses – this can be by software, and learned systematically. Imagine if legal code could be translated through some filter into a human-readable form. Imagine if you could query, using a well-defined interface whether a body of law has certain properties, or if certain activities are true. Imagine if law was extensible and modular. Imagine if the legal system was simple, accessible, and thin enough that legal disputes could be resolved in a matter of seconds rather than years, through software interfaces rather than the courts.

I don’t know which parts of this are actually plausible, or if it’s even possible. However, it t would make damned interesting research project for someone. I wonder if someone’s already tried..

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Posted in Mind & Society, Software & The Net, The Future | 1 Comment »

via George,

An amusing take on what entertainment might be like 50 years from now.

How plausible is full sensory experience and interface like this by the date offered in the video (2062)?

Right now, it might look like far future fiction, but I’m fairly sure that’s not the case. Enabling technologies necessary for virtual reality of this level either exist already, are in development, or are at least theoretically possible.

The nanomachines necessary seem almost inevitable, particularly as the necessary components for these (antenna, propulsion, power) are in development, with experimental devices either complete or nearing completion. Similarly, the computing power necessary also seems easily achievable.

So, to me, the main remaining obstacle is complexity. That is, while we can create the necessary devices, and produce the necessary content, can we string these all together into the necessary engineered systems? We’re pretty awful at this sort of thing when it comes to building large scale software solutions, largely because of the need for rapid change and adaptation. It seems that brain interfaces of this fidelity must adapt quite precisely to the neural topology of the individual, and it would seem that these must vary widely at the level of neurons, meaning that any engineered system interfacing with the brain must be heavily customizable to accomodate this.

This, by the way, is my general concern with some of the technology ideals before us – I trust our ability to invent and create devices, but I don’t trust our ability to coordinate them.

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Posted in Science & Technology, The Future | No Comments »

Prosthetic limbs are another harbinger of the future. They’re becoming increasingly sophisticated, and it looks like IEEE Spectrum is going to run a special issue on them in February.

There’s an interesting article up now about the ‘Luke’ arm, named for Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic in Empire Strikes Back. Check it out in this video.

What’s really cool is the range of control mechanisms available – gone are cumbersome mechanical arrangements, replaced by controls based on nerve signals, twitching related muscles, or even underused muscle groups such as toes. The video below shows an arm based entirely on neural feedback – the patient doesn’t need to learn special commands – his prosthetic responds to messages from his brain similarly to a real one.

Another article discusses cosmeses – coverings for the arm mechanics designed to make them look real. Unfortunately, there’s no pictures, though from the description of “silver-black carbon fiber, shimmering with a pattern of subtle scales” sounds pretty damned awesome.So far, no one has replaced their body parts with prosthetics voluntarily, but given their progress and potential, I give it at most ten years.

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Posted in Science & Technology, The Future | No Comments »

I’ve always loved the name ‘rail gun’ – of all the various futuristic weapons concepts I’ve encountered, it’s probably the most down to earth name. And, since it’s based on an idea you can replicate at home with a bunch of wire and a battery, it’s always seemed one of the most practical.

The US Navy’s been interested in rail guns for use on their various capital ships – they’re aiming for a 64 MJ version that will be able to lob projectiles up to 200 miles.

A recent article in the MIT Technology Review describes a 10 MJ gun which is nonetheless scarily impressive. Particularly because, at over 2 kilometres a second, a 3 kg slug is travelling fast enough to cause flakes of aluminium on it to spontaneously combust, leaving an impressive fiery tail.


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Posted in Science & Technology, The Future | No Comments »

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