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Changing morality to fit the technology

I came across a post tonight by a professor at the University of Georgia. He uses his response to a recent post on the NPR blog All Songs Considered as an opportunity to talk about the ethics of downloading music without paying for it. It’s a long, but good post. He makes a better argument, I think, than most posts on this topic, which normally come across as bitter and degrading if not threatening. This post tries to show respect for the NPR post’s author, intern Emily White, without backing down from his position, which is nice.

I thought the post went beyond most other arguments in its second section, which started like this:

Now, having said all that, I also deeply empathize with your generation. You have grown up in a time when technological and commercial interests are attempting to change our principles and morality. Rather than using our morality and principles to guide us through technological change, there are those asking us to change our morality and principles to fit the technological change–if a machine can do something, it ought to be done. Although it is the premise of every “machines gone wild” story since Jules Verne or Fritz Lang, this is exactly backwards. Sadly, I see the effects of this thinking with many of my students.

That’s an idea that intrigues me. Technology changes us in both obvious and subtle ways. There’s no doubt of that. In a completely unrelated conversation, my wife and I were talking tonight about how the advent of technology (in the form of cars and washing machines) has effected a decrease in physical fitness, for example. Outside of predominantly Christian circles, though, I don’t see a lot written about morality shifts tied to technology (though to be fair, I’m not going out and looking for it). Maybe that’s because morality is becoming more of a grey area in a time when individuals are encouraged to do “what feels right to you” rather than meet an objective standard (no matter the source of that standard).

I’ll be honest – I struggle with the issue of downloading stuff. Not music (except through Spotify, which, until I read this article, was a method I thought fairly compensated the artists – more to look into there), but episodes of TV. If I missed an episode of a show I watched regularly, I used to download them. I stopped doing that a couple of years ago, through a confluence of events, and now rely on Hulu and Xfinity/OnDemand to meet my time-shifting needs. When those fail me (why in the world would Cartoon Network refuse to provide 3 weeks of episodes in the middle of building to a climax at the end of a season? It’s like they’re daring me to go get them!) I seriously struggle with how easy it would be for me to go grab them from a download site.

It’s an oversimplification to say that technology has caused the wavering of my moral compass on this, but I can say that it certainly enables it. As countless sci-fi authors have warned, however, just because I can do something doesn’t mean I should. I try to teach that to my kids, and if I’m not living by it what kind of father does that make me?

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5 comments to Changing morality to fit the technology

  • Mike

    Back when the only way to buy music was on CD, I don’t recall them ever having a scratched-CD exchange program. Today with piracy, they don’t talk about the plastic discs, it’s all about the “Intellectual Property” theft. If it was really about IP, then you could take a plastic disc that got scratched and return it for a much lower fee that a new CD, since you *owned* the Intellectual Property, it’s just that the media got messed up. But that didn’t suit their interests. It’s only worth belly-aching about IP now when they can claim “piracy”. Today, paying for CDs doesn’t suit my needs. I already paid for $500 worth of CD’s back in the ’90s. Bittorrent works much better for me. When the RIAA finally decides to refund the money it sued from 12 year olds back in 2004, I might consider paying.

    Reply to this comment

    Jeff says:

    Let me see if I can boil down what you’re saying.

    1. Because there’s no physical media, there should be no cost. The actual music itself is worthless and no one involved in creating, producing, advertising, or delivering it deserves any money, but they should keep making it available to you for free because it makes you happy.
    2. You want your money back for the physical media you bought years ago.

    Is that right?

    Wow. I’ll say this: you’re refreshingly honest.

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike

    Because there’s no physical media now, it’s suddenly about “Intellectual Property” theft. But apparently it wasn’t about “Intellectual Property” back then, because the media wasn’t replaceable (at low cost) when you scratched it. They’d just have you buy another one as if the physical good was what was sold.

    If you license a play from me, and I give you the script, you aren’t paying for the paper it’s written on, you’re paying for the IP “rights”. If you lose your script I give you, I just print you another one, maybe charge you for photocopies.

    With the record industry, there is no truth to their arguments. Whatever benefits them at that moment becomes the truth.

    Why is there a first sale doctrine on a plastic CD but not on a legally-purchased mp3 ? Remember, it’s not about the physical media, it’s about IP, about “rights” and “licenses”, oh wait, but if the industry takes away our first-sale rights, they can make more money. Well guess what ? That argument works for me too! If I take their IP rights, I keep more of my own money. The only difference is that I don’t have a multi-billion-dollar “consumer’s lobby” changing the laws in my favor!

    Reply to this comment

    Jeff says:

    Okay, here is another question:

    You do realize that companies are in business to make money, right? Whether they’re selling music, software, or candy penguins, the goal is a profit. If your life is made better in the process, so be it (especially if that gets you to come back for more).

    If you feel they’re making too much profit for what they are providing, the answer is simple – don’t purchase, and go without their product/service. Disagreeing with how they make their money is not license to steal their product/service.

    As is made clear in the linked article, there are plenty of ways to get your music at a fair(ish) price that actually benefits the artists so they can continue to make more of their product. You don’t want to support the big companies? Fine. I’m cool with that. Get your music directly from the artists’ sites, or some other site that pays the artist.

    I’m not going to get into an IP debate with you. It’s an interesting topic, but in the end it comes down to this: are they (the artist, company, whatever) offering you their stuff for free? If yes, then do a happy dance and say thanks. If not, pay what they’re charging or do without.

    Just because I think my cable company charges an outrageous price for their service doesn’t mean I can cancel my account and then put a splitter on my neighbor’s line.

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike

    I agree with you that the point of a business is to make money…by providing a useful or valuable *product or service*. Not by being a gatekeeper: i.e. by creating an artificial scarcity of something that already exists (sound/video recordings) and charging for access to it.

    I don’t feel that any business can do such a thing as “making too much profit”. Apple is the most profitable company ever (partly by doing what the labels could have done all along but chose not to), and although I’m not a fanboi, I recognize they’ve made incredible contributions through products and services that change people’s lives. They don’t sit at the gate and charge people to go inside, 60 years and counting.

    I will consider giving money to artists directly when there is an easy way to do that. Most of what I listen to is beyond the 14 year length of the *original* duration of copyright, you know, the one everybody says is “written in the constitution”. The numerous “copyright extension acts” that have been passed only benefit record labels and therefore don’t apply to me.

    I think it’s also up to artists to work diligently to rid themselves of the RIAA-sponsored labels and the radio payola model. If they can create their own lobby that represents *them*, (call it the AIAA, and no, ASCAP isn’t the same thing), maybe they can pass a law that requires publishers/labels to give a minimum of 90% of sales directly to the people who created the works (hey, why not use laws ? If they’re good enough to use against the consumer, they should be good enough to use against labels, right ?). They could flash 20 second warning messages to each label when they sign the contract, complete with the FBI logo on it, that says “WARNING: any label caught paying the artist less than 90% may face up to 10 yrs in PRISON, or a $150,000 FINE, or BOTH, as covered by 18 USC 2434.55″, even though they agreed to the terms and are not criminals, apparently its ok to do to consumers, so it’s ok to do to them, right ?

    Oh, one little thing I want to add: what about all those thieving artists ? Is it ok to support them too ? You know, like Stairway to Heaven being a ripoff of Taurus:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stairway_to_heaven#Taurus

    Or what about the revolutionary Beatle, John Lennon stealing “Come together” ?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Come_Together#Lawsuit

    Is it important to support these Intellectual Property thieves ? If so, can I get support for stealing IP too ? Like if I stole “Imagine” and made money off it ? Is it OK to pirate music that was originally stolen ? Or is it only important that us cash-cow idiot consumers follow the law, and those holier-than-thou artists get to steal whatever they want ? Gee, it’s almost like we’re all human and we all steal!

    Reply to this comment

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