Kirby Ferguson's TED Talk: "Embrace the Remix" - a must-see

Kirby "Everything is a Remix" Ferguson, whose work we've blogged about a lot, gave an amazing, must-see TED Talk about the way that creativity comes about as the result of creative re-use of others' work. It's not just explicit remixes and samples -- everything from the iPhone to Bob Dylan's music are made out of other peoples' inventions and creations. Ferguson shows that our cognitive bias for "loss aversion" makes us willing to take others' ideas, but furious when others take our ideas and build on them (cue Steve Jobs saying "I've always stolen shamelessly from the best" and contrasted with his vow to "go thermonuclear on Android" because "It is a stolen product.") We rationalize that the stuff we take from others is just plumbing -- uncreative infrastructure to which we add our own special snowflakes of creativity. But everyone thinks that his or her work is a special snowflake and everyone else's is boring plumbing. The truth is, it's both. And copyright and patent laws, with their "awkward metaphor" of property, have it backwards. They make hypocrites out of all of us, forcing us to pretend that our inspiration arrived holus-bolus, as our brains were bestirred by mystical muses -- and to deny our participation in the ancient tradition of ripping off the best and making something that's ours out of what we take.

Embrace the Remix (via TechDirt)


      1. but they used different words and had a very slightly different meaning. it was a longer sentence too, if i recall correctly.

  1. I’m not exactly sure why a simple oratory thesis such as this needs to be turned into a rant about copyright (again)

    To put it succinctly and with 99% less screaming weirdness and enthusiasm by our curator, we as human beings don’t so much travel through life. Life travels through us. We’re like tumbleweeds, rolling, meandering and picking up cultural things on the way. Language and the way we each talk is directly influenced by others and most importantly by our genetics. Why does the haunting spectre of Steve Jobs have to be inserted into every modern conversation or piece of Internet text?

    People are tumbleweeds, with some sponge and fly paper thrown in.

    1.  Tumbleweeds aren’t taking each other to court and ruining each other’s lives over what they’ve picked up along their routes.

      1. “taking each other to court”

        Again with a copyright reference…will they ever stop?

        Obviously I was ruminating philosophically. Albeit in a clumsy way.
        It’s kind of a shame that creativity and copyright have become evil twins in many minds. I would assert that it’s possible to create without any thought of being paid and without being covered by some sort of legal hoodoo voodoo

        1. You absolutely don’t get this. Yes, it’s possible to create without being paid. Plenty of people do it all the time, including me. But it is nearly impossible to create utilizing clearly attributable portions of other work without paying them. That’s the connection to copyright. In the present world, remixing and copyright are inextricably linked. You can talk tumbleweeds till the cows come home. It doesn’t change the way things really are.

          1. “But it is nearly impossible to create utilizing clearly attributable portions of other work without paying them”

            I think you’re getting “creating” confused with “creating solely or partially for profit”

            I can sit in my car and play Bob Dylan and Lady Gaga songs on a kazoo till the cows come home and I don’t have to pay anybody. I can draw artistic homages to Dali in shaving cream in my bathroom ’till the cows come home and I don’t have to pay nobody no how. 

            It’s a sad state of affairs when everything has a price and a barcode slapped on it. The vast majority of artists and musicians in the world are never going to see much (or any) money for the ART they create. People who succeed monetarily in the Arts are the MINORITY. This is the way things really are. The professional Arts are generally controlled and confined by an elite number of “in” members. Most arguments regarding copyright apply to this elite membership alone, not to the Average Joe or Josephine

            Copyright shmopyright…just play yer drums and splatter your paint and shaddup…will ya?

          2. @boingboing-f2b3e33f59cddd7e43830b682b2d4721:disqus : Neat trick, how you sidestepped the incontestable fact that people are getting their asses sued off, censored, slapped with C&Ds & fines, or charged usuriously disproportionate fees for inegrating other work. Whether other people are doing it and not exposing themselves to litigation through obscurity is irrelevant. Do you really subscribe to a “Well, no one killed me, so things are safe” outlook?

          3.  latelatelateshow: holy disingenuous, Batman! There are plenty of not for profit creative endeavors that have been quashed by overzealous copyright enforcement. Ferguson cited a perfect example in his talk– Danger Mouse created the Grey Album out a simple desire to create, and handed it out to his friends. It eventually wound up going viral, at which point Apple Records tried to crush it with copyright complaints. No profit involved on Danger Mouse’s part, but the chilling effects are obvious.

    2.  Tumbleweeds are seen throughout classic American Westerns, however, they are not native to the U.S.  Instead, they were stolen from Ukrainian farmers in the guise of bundled flax seed imports in the 1800s.  Some reported that this sharing was not going to hurt anyone but within a few decades after they initially were seeded, a torrent of tumbleweeds could be found rolling across the South West. According to the University of California Agricultual and Natural Resources Website on Statewide Integrated Pest Management, Tumbleweeds are nothing short of Armageddon in a variably mobile delivery platform.

      1. But….but they’re as iconically American as a green lawn or a flock of starlings!

    3. I’m sorry, sir, do you have a license for the use of the tumbleweed as a metaphor? My client has exclusive rights to this metaphor, and I’m afraid that unless you apologize and retract your statement or  pay the appropriate licensing fees, we will see you in court.[/sarcasm]

    4. I’m not exactly sure why a simple oratory thesis such as this needs to be turned into a rant about copyright (again)

      Because the thesis is that reusing cultural tropes in transformational ways is an important part of the nature of creativity, and because copyright can be used as a bludgeon to prevent people from reusing cultural tropes in transformative ways — especially given the historical trends in copyright laws.  The provision in the U.S. Constitution that allows Congress to write IP laws in the first place explicitly states that the intention of such laws is to build a common cultural heritage — a public domain.  But due to the hypercapitalism of the last few decades, corporations are heavily incentivized to treat IP the same way they treat capital goods.  That’s why you have movie studios, record companies, and associated trade groups pushing for more and more restrictive copyright laws — they’re protecting their assets.  It’s the exact same reason Exxon/Mobil etc. pump money into anti-environmental propaganda; taxes on carbon would devalue the proven reserves already owned by oil companies.  Similarly, sane copyright law devalues huge stocks of IP.

      Another way to look at it is that media companies and trade groups want to own our common culture the same way that we’re allowed to own cars and bits of furniture.  The copyfight is about preventing that.  If you have a problem with that then you can always just avoid posts like this.

      1. Personally, I tend to refrain from using reused cultural tropes. Reused cultural tropes tend to burn and smell when one microwaves them. Plus they’re expensive!

        I woud suggest we’re all “owned” to a large extent and we’re completely dependent on each other and on companies (which are owned by “us” human beings) – your comment (directly above) appears to make some sort of sense, but on closer reading it’s a little crazy and wacky with big words thrown in to impress. Plus, I despise the freaky word “copyfight”

  2. Some of his points are well-made, others I find less convincing.  For example, the fact that folk music was predicated on borrowing airs – as most people surely well know – doesn’t really address the fear some people have regarding remixing and how it might facilitate a slide towards mediocrity.  The point is that a folk musician borrowing an air still has to develop the same skill-set that the previous musician had – he doesn’t simply lift the previous musician’s work wholesale.  Similarly, remixing, in mediocre hands, facilitates a complete theft of the previous musicians mojo, which is completely divorced from Dylan’s complete transformation of the meaning, mood, and message of the airs he borrowed.  And quoting one lyric Dylan had cribbed seemed somewhat unfair, and completely fails to acknowledge that by the time of Bringing it all Back Home, Dylan was writing songs virtually like no one ever had before.

    I’m not a Luddite, and I love contemporary music, but I think the issues are not as simple as he’s presenting them.  I do sometimes think that too many people are making music today without really learning anything about playing music.

    1.  Maybe we are already mediocre and really remixing just lifts the illusion of creative genius.

      1. I don’t think anyone would say that Led Zeppelin was mediocre, in terms of their musicianship, and they stole wholesale. I’m not sure what, exactly, you are going to do to keep mediocrity out of any artform.

    2. “I do sometimes think that too many people are making music today without really learning anything about playing music”

      I would argue that Dylan was much more adept at seizing the zeitgeist than anything else.  This may be a controversial statement to many, but his skill level as a musician is quite mediocre, IMHO.  A lot of kids these days that you think do nothing but lift things wholesale probably spent more time learning how to use Reason or Ableton software than Bob spent practicing guitar/harmonica. 

      At the very least, musical ‘talent’ is subjective, as is ‘taste’.  You use what tools you have.  Not everything is great, obviously, but just because art doesn’t follow a set paradigm of method doesn’t mean it’s easy or lazy or less inspired.

    3.  “I’m afraid that if people keep doing what they’ve always done, they’ll produce crap. They should be creating things from principles, like nobody ever has!”

      People respect talent. If you lift wholesale, you get no respect. And in this day and age, you steal at your own peril–people find out in minutes, sometimes.

  3. Nice video, but he missed an opportunity: he set up the Beatles White Album as surely based on other works, then didn’t mention those other works. E.g. the influence of show tunes, music hall, and the Maharishi. Indeed, the main significance of the White album is precisely that it reflects the individual band members’ interests at the time.

    re: tristan eldritch
    The irony of the “slide to mediocrity” argument is that this is precisely what the white album’s famed originality represented: every review I have read suggests the fab four were getting sloppy, putting out vanity pieces, and it would have been a better album if half the tracks were dumped.

  4.  Hey.  I’m not entirely advocating the “slide to mediocrity” argument at all – just suggesting that it can have validity in certain instances, and that the concept of remixing and sampling does to some extent alter the playing field from simply borrowing or being influenced by, in that it means the sampler/remixer no longer has to have the same basic skill-set as the person he is sampling. 

    1.  I think you are confusing composition with musicianship. A lot of brilliant composers are lousy players. And even more great players can’t compose to save their lives. The two don’t really have anything to do with each other. Remixing is more akin to composition than it is to playing. It’s repurposing and recontextualizing existing music, and is as creative or mediocre as the person doing the remixing. But to somehow ding the art itself because the people practicing it aren’t good at something that isn’t a component of the art, is specious.

      1. I listen to and love a lot of sampled music, and I’m not advocating a strong “slide to mediocrity” argument that some purists or conservatives might.  But I think that as a general rule, musicians produce better music – using whatever tools – than non-musicians.  By musicians, I mean people who have either some grasp of music composition (in terms of theory and so on) or some experience in terms of the tactile and perhaps more intuitive experience of being a non-compositional player (although I suspect that very few really great players are as divorced from compositional sense as you seem to imply.)  A Brian Eno will tend, in most cases, to produce better music using tape samplers and loops than somebody who lacks Brian Eno’s prior experience both in terms of composition and performance.  Holger Czukay, one of the great pioneers of sampling, was also a great musician.  I’m not sure that you can say that a knowledge or experience of musical composition and performance is not a component of the art of producing music.  Repurposing and recontextualizing can be great, but it can also lead to a lot of very lazy, very deadening and artless shuffling around of pre-existent elements, arguably a (little) more so than when people couldn’t produce music without being musicians in the conventional sense. Hence a mild slide in the direction of mediocrity.

        1. Brian Eno can’t even read music. He & David Byrne pretty much invented the sampled album with “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.” For one of his ambient albums, he didn’t change a note of Pachalbal’s Canon, only halved the meter. In other words, he shamelessly cribbed wholesale from prior sources, but because he is innovative, he left his mark on them. “Where I steal,” said Michelangelo, “there I leave my knife.”

          People have been claiming that art and culture have been sliding toward mediocrity at least since Aristotle. The technical term for this is “geezing.” The truth is that technologies that can be applied to an art form, will be, and with glorious disregard for legitimacy, originality, or, really, the need to do anything but achieve the desired effect.

          What musicians are pissed about is the ready accessibility of this capability to the masses. Just as composers fought recorded music (Sousa notoriously fought the phonograph as a cheapening and dumbing-down of performed music); “real” musicians tried to illegitimize the advent of synthesizers (“music played by computers”); writers were annoyed in the 70s/80s with the advent of word processors (yeah, believe it or not),vinyl DJs were (and continue to be) with the advent of digital DJing — the list goes on and on.

          The truth is that this criticism primarily comes from people who have trained hard in an art form mad as hell when technology evolves more accessible (and by definition less exclusive) ways to do what they’ve done.

          But that genie never goes back into the bottle, and eventually it becomes the status quo. When was the last time you heard a synthesizer and thought, “What a shame that guy can’t play a real instrument”?

  5. If you wanna hear an interesting remix, run an ear over Ives’ 4th symphony, or The Fourth of July if you’re short on time.

    I’m a classically trained pianist, and I get just as much of a kick out of Prometheus Burning’s power noise tracks as I do playing the Rach 2. Formal training is irrelevant given the ease with which today’s musical tools can be self-learned and used to create.

    The masses are weary of music being dictated to them from the establishment, they are discovered they can take it and make it their own by limitless means, and they will continue to do it knowing that the only audience they need to please is their own personal ears.

    I don’t care if you like my remixes – I like my remixes, they are for me, and they are how I want the music to sound to my ears.

  6. Stolen from Douglas Hofstadter’s article in Scientific American, “Variations on a Theme as the Crux of Creativity” which you can pirate here

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