The Inaccessibility of Innovation

Bas Relief is a music project concerned with access. Our first album featured an essay, Forfeiting Rights in Exchange for Access, which sought to situate the record within the confusingly tangled webs of accessibility, social media, privacy, and copyright. With our second album, Inconditional, we present the following essay as an extension of the first, this time including a more extensive critique of our own work.

Inconditional (2016), by Cat Lamoureux, Milo Reinhardt, and Charlotte Forbes

In February 2016, Bas Relief (David Mitchell, myself, and a revolving cast of co-conspirators) released Sent from my iPad, an album consisting of ten songs, Ableton Live project files for each song, eleven visual collages, source images for each of those collages, an essay meant to position the work, and a Sample Guide that serves the purpose of attributing the referenced (or reworked) sound and music. With Inconditional as the next record in the form of Sent from my iPad, it is important for us to critique some of the inconsistencies and oversights that have emerged in our attempt to establish an ethos around our musical works. Compositionally, Inconditional is the logical progression from Sent from my iPad in that we produced and reworked much more of our own material than before. Rather than sampling as much copyrighted or otherwise restricted material as possible, we were a bit more selective this time around. Regardless, the spirit of sampling remained. David indicated the work could be an interpretation of plunderphonics, since I had constructed the foundations of the album using material authored by others.

Upon review of the original Sent from my iPad essay, I realized that I had failed to make a particularly important distinction between the free software movement and open source. In the essay I presented Bas Relief’s album as an interactive, vaguely open source project. Given the somewhat loose-knit nature of the project, existing as it does in photos, on SYR’s website, in a diaphanous idea, on bandcamp, and on Google Drive, it doesn’t exactly conform to traditions of open source. But neither does it quite conform to the strict politics of the free software movement. In response to the project, my brother, a programmer of many years, noted that I had appealed more to the ideals of free software than open source, indicating that I had neglected to address the nuances of the differences between the two (this was a matter of my own ignorance and misunderstanding, admittedly). I won’t cover those histories in detail here, as the depth of them exceeds the limits of practical discussion in an essay about an experimental free/libre music album. Instead, I’ll summarize with a line from the GNU Project’s Words to Avoid (or Use with Care) Because They Are Loaded or Confusing: “Free software is a political movement; open source is a development model.” This “political movement” was essentially the spirit I’d hoped to capture with Sent from my iPad, although ambiguously situated in the confusing intersections of social media, copyright, privacy, and music distribution (not to mention my misapplication of the terminology).

Ultimately, I had never claimed to be partaking in strictly open source activity, but I had failed to correctly contextualize the vernacular, thereby warping the ideology. Personally, I have learned that I do indeed identify more with ideals of the free software movement, but that I can acquiesce to a degree of Complicity that is not quite allowed in such a movement. With our use of Google Drive, for example, we interfere with some of the core rejections of the free software movement, specifically by using proprietary software and services. But by hosting our Sample Guide and project files on Google Drive, do we not perform a symbolic hack of the service? After all, we are essentially hosting bits of copyright restricted material on Drive, which we have repurposed, transformed, and remixed. Granted, hosting on Drive gives Google suspiciously powerful rights to the essence of our music — the project files are our songs, strictly speaking. But this forfeiture of rights to the Corporation, referred to as “the machine” by General Public License architect Eben Moglen, is a necessary repurposing (or remix, if you will) of Drive’s intended use. In the end, Bas Relief is neither part of the free software movement nor is it guided by an open source model. Simply, it is informed by the bridging of digital divides that those realms have facilitated.

In general, much of the pleasure and reward I derive from this work comes from drawing on the works of others to re-situate ideas in contexts where they might not have initially surfaced, to the end of realizing a creative product that is not its own collection of impossibly unique ideas, but one that is informed and bettered by the infinity of works that preceded and/or surround it. However, with the original essay, it was dangerous for me to cite mostly academic sources, possibly alienating audiences who might otherwise benefit from the work. After all, reaching new audiences who can benefit from the work is the point! But as with forfeiting your information to the Corporation, these digital divides are somewhat inescapable when dealing with complex institutions that are built on equally complex technologies and legal frameworks. Currently, these new, exciting technologies cater to an extremely exclusive demographic, which ultimately only serves to restrict access to their potential benefits. Unfortunately, this exclusivity is not an aberration on the web.

The reasons behind the inaccessible nature of this work are succinctly captured in the piece, “Platform Cooperativism as a Critique of Open-Source,” by writer and platform cooperativist Nathan Schneider. These important questions guiding the discussion of democratic access to creative tools are often left out of tech discourse. Who is it made by? Who is it made for? Who is excluded? Coraline Ada Ehmke adeptly addresses these questions by retelling a short history of the origins of open source in her talk, “The Broken Promise of Open Source:”

[…] behind the idealism of early open source advocates were some very naive understandings of how the world actually works and in particular how systems of power work. And these advocates tended to be well-educated, upper-middle class, cisgender heterosexual white men who were acting from a place of unexamined privilege.

Turning this critique on ourselves, I realize that the predominant hindrance to participation with Sent from my iPad was to rely on Ableton Live as the standard software medium. Restricting interaction with our experiment to a realm of proprietary software that is steeped in white bro subcultures does not qualify as a fulfillment of our mandate to provide the material means to fully engage. I regret initially framing the experiment as open source precisely because of my ignorance of its origins, neglecting to acknowledge that the term open source was coined by a woman, Christine Peterson. The guiding principles of open source (free exchange of ideas, success through collaboration, shared ownership, and meritocratic return) are important to the arts, but they must take into consideration the realities of the world we live in. Socioeconomic status, gender, race, and disability (to name a few examples) are rarely considered when developing new technology and tools. From racial bias in AI development, to inaccessibility in web and tech development, there is a clear, rampant problem in the tech world that denies people the world over a seat at the tables of innovation.

So how does one begin to provide the material means to fully engage? It proves extremely costly when one approaches questions of scalability, or reaching bigger audiences. But the pursuit of a platform cooperativism, for example, could allow artists to retake control over the instruments that shape their music through the creation of a free software digital audio workstation just as effective as Ableton Live, if not better! Similarly, one could even remix an open source audio workstation like Audacity, due to its relatively unrestricted license. While we strive toward these ideas, the least Bas Relief can do is to simply provide our stems (individual tracks of a song), rather than assuming our audience has and knows how to use Ableton Live, or cutting edge decentralized software for that matter. This will allow for more flexibility for those inclined to playing with the music and using our work to better their own! As well, we could even go so far as to establish an explicit code of conduct, or adhere our work to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines set forth by the Web Accessibility initiative. These are guidelines we will implement into our work as we acquire the time and resources to do so.

Overall, the results of Sent from my iPad, owing to unclear jargon, restricted software, and perhaps an overabundance of pedantic information, were somewhat scarce. We are happy to say, however, that Zachary Goldberg-Mota embraced the spirit of the project and produced what is, to our knowledge, the sole response to the project in the form of a music video. His response perfectly captured the spirit of the project in a compelling and deft manner, the whole of which we included on the Sent from my iPad page. It should also be noted that his video was created using public domain footage! Our source materials weren’t even needed to produce derivative works, a pleasant corroboration of the ethos(es) in question.

So where does all that leave us? Currently, Bas Relief as a project is still too unknown to have any quantifiable, tangible impact, but we can conclude that our efforts with Sent from my iPad were not undertaken with full consideration of the question, who is it made for? And what of emerging digital divides? With 54% of American adults saying it would be difficult to enhance their privacy online, we are clearly at odds with accessible, user- and artist-friendly technology. Until an accessible, powerful, decentralized platform surfaces, Bas Relief must continue to apply these critiques of privilege to its work. Fortunately, intriguing initiatives are constantly blossoming, many centered around blockchain technology, known for powering Bitcoin. In many ways, building on these technologies encourages platform cooperativism, producing new and exciting decentralized platforms like Resonate. Of course, no one is to say these new technologies will replace industry giants like Spotify in good faith, but we can never know if we do not give them at least a cursory examination, even if they are as yet inaccessible to a broader public. For further reading and inquiry, please refer to the list below.

Coding Freedom, a fantastic anthropological survey of hackers and free software, by professor Gabriella Coleman (@BiellaColeman).

The People’s Platform, which The Guardian called “an invaluable primer for understanding the networked world.” Written by Astra Taylor (@astradisastra).

A decentralized guide,” a list of sources, materials, and platforms falling under the umbrella of decentralization, compiled by artist and musician Lars Holdhus (@TCF6edfsdf4c7e7).

Library Freedom Project, looking at the intersection of privacy and libraries. This webpage hosts an excellent list of privacy-related materials, resources, and apps.

Against Intellectual Monopoly,” redefining intellectual property as intellectual monopoly, by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levin.