The Internet: Cancelled because of bad ratings

Another way to think about SOPA/PIPA is to compare it to the pending cancellation of a favorite show. You love the show, and you’ve heard something about low ratings and that it might be cancelled. But you don’t tell anyone else to watch it, you don’t write the network to tell them how much you love it… and one day, the axe falls and the show is cancelled.

Then you get angry and write your letter, or join in a rally to support the show. Now it’s too late, though. The cow has left the barn and it’s too late to close the door. Oh, well.

That’s why today’s blackouts of several popular websites is important. It’s bringing the discussion of these potentially important pieces of legislation to the forefront. You certainly haven’t seen much about SOPA/PIPA on broadcast or cable news. Why? Could it be that all of those networks are owned by corporations that are fully in support of the legislation?

I’ve already noted that I’m not in support of piracy or stealing of intellectual property. It stinks, and if we could figure out a way to really eliminate it, I’d support that. But these bills don’t do that. Piracy can’t be completely “stopped,” and IP owners who witness infringement of their copyrighted material already have legal remedies to have those violations prosecuted (see the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, or DMCA).

(By the way, I also find it hard to believe that IP owners would actually demand that a major website be shut down over a single violation. The outcry over Facebook being blacked out involuntarily by the government – without due process of law but simply over an allegation – would dwarf the frustration Wikipedia or Reddit users are feeling today. Smaller sites, though, will surely be subject to such harassment.)

None of this justifies codifying bad law to appease wealthy corporations in exchange for campaign contributions. I find it depressing that when Congress is debating something of real national importance, like raising the debt ceiling or guaranteeing access to basic human services like healthcare, nothing can be done because of partisan bickering. Yet when the entertainment behemoth comes calling, it’s suddenly sweetness and light between the two parties? (Although those speaking against the bills are an interesting mix of conservatives and liberals as well.)

My email to Candice Miller regarding SOPA

Text of the email I sent to Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI 10th) this morning. Similar emails were sent to Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). You can easily contact your Congressional representatives using this site.

Dear Congresswoman Miller:

I’d like to add my voice to those concerned about the Stop Online Piracy Act (H.R. 3261), also known as SOPA. I am sympathetic to the concerns of intellectual property creators, artists and owners, as I am a writer, photographer and artist myself.

I am opposed to this legislation, however, because it is like trying to destroy a hornet’s nest with a howitzer; it may kill the hornets, but the collateral damage isn’t worth it. The Internet has spawned an amazing range of creative and useful ideas and has been a major factor in our country’s economic growth in the past two decades. Much of this growth has come because of the freedom to spend time innovating. SOPA proposes to place an enormous regulatory burden on every website based in the U.S., to somehow “ensure” that their users haven’t infringed on anyone’s copyrights. I believe these provisions will prove to be practically unenforceable; plus, there are already adequate legal remedies for IP owners to demand that copyrighted material be removed from an infringing site that are less apocalyptic than shutting down an entire website domain without due process of law, as SOPA (and its Senate counterpart, PROTECT-IP) propose to do.

I hope that you will consider the potential damage to free expression and economic growth that SOPA represents when you are considering your decision. The U.S. is an example to the rest of the world, and SOPA’s passage will be seen as permission by other, less open countries to similarly clamp down on the openness of the Internet. It would indeed be ironic for the nation founded on freedom of speech and expression to be the leader in shutting down the most powerful voice individuals worldwide have had in human history.

I appreciate your time and your consideration of my comments.


Tom Kephart
Marine City, Michigan

UPDATE (5:47 p.m.): Rep. Miller replied by email. She opposes SOPA. Here’s a quote from her response:

I am opposed to the SOPA and PIPA legislation currently under consideration in Congress because I believe it threatens legitimate online commerce which has been one of the few areas of growth in our economy and the freedom of speech on the internet which has become so central to life in the modern world and must be defended.  I am pleased that House leadership has indicated that this legislation will not be considered until major changes are made which will stop online piracy of intellectual property and protects American jobs while also ensuring the protection of freedom of speech on the internet.

White House reacts to SOPA/PIPA opposition

The Obama administration issued a response to two petitions that oppose SOPA/PIPA today. It contains some encouraging information regarding the White House’s position on the bills and some of their more drastic elements, but also encourages the petitioners to come up with better ideas. The concept of accepting suggestions from a wide-ranging, social media centered audience is good, I think, but as Sherwin Siy notes at Public Knowledge today:

There’s something that I think is just slightly missed here. There’s nothing wrong with trying to crowdsource solutions to online infringement, and maybe the signers of these petitions isn’t a bad place to start. But the White House, and Congress, and others should know that there’s only going to be a smaller subset of people angry about SOPA and PIPA who are interested in finding solutions to infringement. Not because they’re only concerned with saying “no” rather than “yes,” but because they’re not concerned with copyright—they’re concerned with the Internet.

The reason they’re saying “no” to PIPA and SOPA isn’t because they’re extremely picky and opinionated about the proper methods of copyright enforcement; it’s because PIPA and SOPA so fundamentally alter the technical and normative structures of the Internet—the milieu within which they speak, work, and play. Saying “no” to SOPA doesn’t necessarily mean they should have something they can say “yes” to on copyright enforcement; just as often, these are the people saying “yes” to freeing speech in repressive countries; to educating new generations of makers, scholars, artists, and inventors; to just making it easier to communicate with distant friends and family.

Most Internet users aren’t pirates; they just want to use this technology to stay in touch, to make our own videos, to post funny pictures of cats, and, yes, to watch TV shows, movies and listen to music – legally. They’re not policy makers, in fact, most of the time they don’t pay a great deal of attention to details about public policy at all. At this point, most Internet users don’t seem to know or care much about SOPA or PIPA at all, which is good for the supporters of the bills.

They’re not going to be happy if they have their Facebook and YouTube taken away, though. That’s why I have the feeling that the actual applications of SOPA/PIPA by the government would be less drastic than they seem (though not having them pass at all is still the best option, rather than depending on them not being fully enforced).

SOPA and PIPA: Bad for (almost) everyone

Do you know about SOPA and PIPA? You should, because if these bills pass it would cause huge changes in the way the Internet works, stifling innovation, reducing economic growth and reducing or eliminating free expression and social media. The bills are currently being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives (“Stop Online Piracy Act” – SOPA, which is H.R. 3261) and the U.S. Senate (“PROTECT-IP Act” – PIPA, which is S. 968), and while pressure from Internet experts, companies and everyday users has begun to force the bills’ supporters to backtrack somewhat, there’s still a possibility that they could pass in their current form, which would be a disaster.

In short, the bills were requested by owners and creators of intellectual property, i.e. music, films, television, etc. The entertainment industry. As a writer and creator of intellectual property myself, I respect the idea that artists should be paid fairly for their work. Piracy does harm that, I agree. But SOPA and PIPA are the legislative equivalent of wiping out a hornet’s nest with mortar shell. It’s overkill. It’s the kind of overkill the entertainment industry has always wanted, though – recall the battles over the Digital Millenium Copyright Act back in 1998, which originally would have had similar net censorship powers.

This video by Fight For The Future describes the bills and their potential impact on the way we use the Internet:

I encourage you to watch the video, which is about four minutes long, and learn about these bills. More to come as the debate continues in the next week.

Another new beginning and a flashback

New Beginning-2

One thing I especially like about teaching college courses is that we start over every sixteen weeks or so. It’s usually the same courses, although I always revise things a bit because I’ve learned new techniques or ideas I like and want to include, but it’s a new set of students (hopefully) excited to start at the beginning and learn something about acting or improvisation.

This semester, I’ll be teaching Oral Interpretation of Literature for the first time. It’s a course that hasn’t been offered at SC4 for a few years, and I worked with our former department chair, David Korff, and the Curriculum Committee to bring it back, and to get it approved to meet the college’s Oral Competency graduation requirement. I’m excited to have it back on the schedule and to have two sections of it this winter.

Oral Interpretation was one of my favorite classes at Central Michigan University when I was there in the early 80s. Jill Taft-Kaufman was my professor, and I was influenced not just by her ideas of performance but also her caring teaching approach. She was funny and friendly and everything I try to be with my students today. So I’m extra geeked to be teaching the course myself starting tomorrow at SC4.

Thanks, Jill!

The other side of the coin. A degree in acting.

Yesterday, I wrote a lengthy post about studying the humanities. Today, let’s puncture a myth, though.

A few years ago, I was in a production of the musical 1776 that included several young actors who were in high school or college. One of these young men (the show has a lot of men – they were the Founding Fathers, after all), who I shall call Oscar (because nobody his age is called Oscar any more), was studying at a local state university. He was a year away from graduation, and was very excited about getting his degree and starting his career. One night, during a break in rehearsal, I asked him what he was studying.

He seemed surprised. “Acting,” he told me.

I was surprised. I had been acting and directing for a few years at that point, and Oscar was the worst actor I’d ever seen. He still is. Nobody else is close. His line readings were wooden, he had no physicality at all (the fact that his character sat motionless in a chair for most of the show was fortuitous blocking indeed), and he absolutely could not look anyone in the eye. The director, the other actors, no one. Ever.

I recovered, though, and asked my follow up: “What are you planning on doing?”

Same answer, of course. “Acting,” Oscar told me proudly, “I’m going to be an actor. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. And once I have my bachelor’s degree in acting, I’ll be an actor.

I mumbled good luck to him and walked away, wondering how he’d made it to his senior year at a credible university without anyone telling him to reconsider his career choice. There was, to put it mildly, no way he would ever be a professional actor. Hell, he’d have trouble getting cast in amateur theater. (And I run into him now and then, and he’s done only a few plays since, in very small roles, none of them professional.)

So, potential actors, if you’re on your way to a bachelor’s degree in acting or performance, please know that in the cold, cruel world that awaits you, very few people with the power to cast you professionally will care. What they care about is skill, about work ethic, about passion… and whether you look the part and don’t have a funny-sounding voice. There are so many factors, and only rarely will your sheepskin from State U. matter.

Why bother then? Well, here’s why: Going to college to study anything — including theater — means you’ll be with dozens, even hundreds, of like-minded students, with whom you can share your ideas and your passion. There will be facilities, such as stages and black boxes and costume shops and workshops with tools and resources you don’t have and that are expensive to buy or rent yourself. There will be teachers, like me, who love theater and love sharing the joy of creating theater with students like you. And unless you’re planning on doing just one-person productions and turn the lights on yourself, it does help to have a lot of people around to make up a cast and crew.

Just don’t confuse the end result, your college degree, with a license to be an actor. You’re still going to have to prove yourself, over and over again, and the fact that you have a degree itself won’t be a big difference maker. But the work you did to get it will.

Learn to learn. Prepare for change. Study humanities.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

Andrew Sullivan commented this morning on an article by Paul Jay and Gerald Graff at Inside Higher Ed called “Fear of Being Useful.” Sullivan’s title was more blunt: “The Humanities Aren’t Totally Useless After All.” His comments and his excerpts from the original article are good, plus he includes the graph shown above from Georgetown University showing unemployment rates between those who studied various academic disciplines.

I teach humanities (theater arts) at a community college, where vocation-specific training has traditionally been very important. We have plenty of students at my college who are here to gain specific knowledge about a subject in order to get a job in that field. Medical, construction trades, manufacturing, and so on. The instruction is (hopefully) up-to-date, thorough, and will lead to a greater chance of success… in that field.

Times change quickly, though. Today’s specialized knowledge is old news tomorrow. What’s the demand for FORTRAN or COBOL programmers these days? Car engines (and robotics and electrical codes and…) keep getting more complex and computerized. And you probably don’t want someone dealing with your medical condition whose education stopped when they left college.

Damon Horowitz, director of engineering at Google […] insisted recently in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “From Technologist to Philosopher: Why You Should Quit Your Technology Job and Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities,” that “if you are worried about your career … getting a humanities Ph.D. is not only not a danger to your employability, it is quite the opposite. I believe there no surer path to leaping dramatically forward in your career than to earn a Ph.D. in the humanities.” “You go into the humanities to pursue your intellectual passion,” he explains, “and it just so happens, as a byproduct, that you emerge as a desired commodity for industry.”

Horowitz, a leading figure in artificial intelligence and the head of a number of tech startups, ought to know. He took a break from his lucrative career to enroll in Stanford’s Ph.D. program in philosophy because he figured out that in order to do his job in technology well he needed to immerse himself in the humanities. “I realized that, while I had set out in AI to build a better thinker, all I had really done was to create a bunch of clever toys.” Horowitz came to realize that the questions he was “asking were philosophical questions — about the nature of thought, the structure of language, the grounds of meaning.” Returning to the humanities, Horowitz took time out from the world of artificial intelligence to study “radically different approaches to exploring thought and language,” such as philosophy, rhetoric, hermeneutics and literary theory. As he studied intelligence from these perspectives he “realized just how limited my technologist view of thought and language was. I learned how the quantifiable, individualistic, ahistorical — that is, computational — view I had of cognition failed to account for whole expanses of cognitive experience (including, say, most of Shakespeare).”

It’s true that we usually continue to learn and update our skills on the job, and continuing education is a requirement for many jobs that require licensing. The ability to do that self-learning, though, begins with learning how to learn. Critical thinking. The ability to ask good questions and expect good answers. The ability to think both creatively and logically. Good writing and intelligent conversation. Skills that are in demand no matter what kind of job you have or aspire to have. As the New York Times’ David Brooks is quoted in Jay and Graff’s article:

Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo.

I find a great depth of thought in most of my students. Not all of them come to college with the ability to express that depth. Some have even been encouraged to “not ask too many questions” by well-meaning parents, teachers and counselors. Given the challenge of trying to understand and inhabit a character, though, they have to get out of their own heads for a few moments and consider someone else’s point of view. It’s liberating for many of them, and they find it’s something they can then apply to many other life choices as well. It’s critical thinking. They’re not just soaking in facts and figures and regurgitating them on tests, they’re learning to learn.

And this ability to think and learn is in demand:

As Associate Dean [Scott] Sprenger [of Brigham Young University] notes, “the usefulness of the humanities” paradoxically “derives precisely from their detachment from any immediate or particular utility. Experts tell us that the industry-specific knowledge of a typical vocational education is exhausted within a few years,” if not “by the time students enter the workforce.” It is no accident, he observes, “that a large percentage of people running Fortune 500 companies (one study says up to 40 percent) are liberal arts graduates; they advance more rapidly into mid- and senior-level management positions, and their earning power tends to rise more significantly than people with only technical training.”

Studying theater or art or English lit or history or composition may not guarantee a specific job right out of school. (Then again, neither does specialized vocational training.) It can, however, prepare the student for a lifetime of learning, adapting and adjusting to new jobs, new challenges and new realities.

Related: Should you go to college? Yes.