Posted by: Jordan | August 25, 2009

The Future of Digital Media

A good friend of mine, let’s call him Mike, has a collection of digital media that is now upwards of 4 terabytes in size and growing, all of which has been downloaded using BitTorrent. It’s not only the fact that he has virtually every movie that has been released on DVD in the past 20 years and any television series you can think of in its entirety at his fingertips that is so impressive, but also that the majority of the collection is in high-definition, beautifully indexed, and is complete with meta data that is linked to, in case you are curious who the Gaffer was for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

As I have told him many times before, it’s almost like he’s back from the future, and rather than checking out the lottery picks or Superbowl winners, he took a trip to Best Buy.

The thing is, I’m only half joking. This, we should hope, is in fact the future of digital media.

So why don’t we have more Mikes today? This kind of access to movies, television and music is readily available right now to anyone with a television, a hard drive, and a rudimentary understanding of the internet. It is also not particularly expensive, difficult or time consuming to set up.

The obvious answer is that Mike is a criminal and has stolen virtually his entire collection, despite being a generally law abiding kind of guy.

There is a fundamental problem here, which is that the current legitimate market for digital media cannot adequately serve our desire for variety. The fact that there exist companies that produce and sell DVDs, and that there are consumers who buy them, shows us that there is a viable market for digital media. In other words, the fact that Paramount is willing to produce and sell a DVD copy of Transformers for $15, and that people are buying that DVD for $15, shows that a good number of people value a Transformers DVD at $15.

However, in addition to valuing Transformers at $15, I also value being able to sit down in front of my TV and have 1000 movies to choose from. I ascribe a particular value to knowing that at any moment, I will be able to choose to watch a movie that fits my mood. Under the current digital media paradigm, which involves me going to HMV and buying 1000 of my favourite movies, it becomes prohibitively expensive to satisfy my desire for variety. I might value having 1000 movies to choose from, but I certainly don’t value it at $15,000.

To be sure, not every desire for variety can be fulfilled. My desire for a variety of cars to choose from for my morning commute isn’t feasible, simply because it costs a significant amount to produce each car. Digital media, however, is different. The costs are fixed at the production and marketing, and each copy produced after the fact is essentially costless. So unlike Ferraris, if you have 1 person willing to spend $15 on a DVD copy of Transformers, producers should be equally happy with 100 people paying $0.15 for a digital version.

Currently, a market does not exist where I can buy $0.15 digital movies. Moreover, it is illegal for me, and Mike, to obtain the variety of digital movies that we want, even though that variety is easily accessible online. It is a lot like the market for contraband drugs, where those serving the market are outlawed — except in the case of digital media, there are no negative social consequences and therefore the illegality of sharing media doesn’t have the same kind of persuasive force as it does with sharing cocaine.

What seems to be holding back this jump forward in the distribution of digital media is that the intellectual property holders are not convinced that there are in fact 100 people willing to spend $0.15 on a digital download for every 1 person willing to spend $15. Specifically, they are worried that each person that was previously spending $15 on their Transformers DVD will simply download it for $0.15. So it would seem all that is needed is an adequate demonstration that the market for variety is large enough to more than enough to make up for the lost DVD market.

Steve Jobs is starting to do it for the digital music market with iTunes, but we are yet to see it happen with the rest of digital media. In my opinion, this shift is inevitable. So until then, we’ll need to keep looking to the Mikes of the world to show us how good it can be.

Posted by: Jordan | May 23, 2009

Tamil Protests and Sri Lanka’s Political Future

The Tamil protestors that gathered in the thousands outside of the American embassy and the Ontario legislature in Toronto over the past few weeks never really stood a chance. Despite the apparently brutal campaign carried out by the Sri Lankan military against the last remaining Tamil rebels, the chances that the U.S., Canada, or the international community would intervene in any meaningful way were virtually nil right from the get go.

On a practical level, there is no chance that the Sri Lankan military could have been convinced by the international community to end or tone down their campaign as it was entering the final stages after more than 30 years of civil war – their determination to end the war was far too strong. On a principled level, most nations, including the U.S. and Canada, had no interest in encouraging restraint on the part of Colombo when their opponent is considered by many to be a terrorist organization.

Unsurprisingly, the final days of this protracted war were forceful and bloody.

While the massive protests in downtown Toronto may have done little to prevent such a conclusion to the war, it is my opinion that the real time to start pressing our politicians for action here in Canada is now. Even though the Sri Lankan forces were able to effectively crush the armed Tamil opposition, the fact remains that Sri Lanka is a multinational state that is the homeland for both the Sinhalese and Tamil peoples. The lasting legacy of this war will be whether the resulting political arrangement between the majority population and the minority Tamils is able to prevent future conflict – whether the Tamil people will continue to feel marginalized, or whether the next generation of Tamils will be able to participate in directing the future of a unified Sri Lanka. (And if not, whether the political framework will exist for a renewed peaceful movement towards an independent Tamil state.)

If history is to be any guide, left to its own devices, Sri Lanka will likely not on its own adopt an equitable political arrangement vis a vis its defeated opponent. There is already some evidence emerging that Colombo is undertaking a heavy-handed campaign to purge the greater Sri Lankan population of anyone with ties to the Tamil Tigers. This is where the international community has a strong obligation to forcefully push for media and humanitarian access, and most importantly, to advocate for an equitable political arrangement between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations. Support and guidance for such an arrangement is readily accessible both from the U.N., international organizations, and some countries with experience in peacekeeping operations.

The degree to which Sri Lanka is open to multinational accommodations will remain to be seen, and certainly resistance will be strong after the past decades of bitter civil war. However, a lasting peace in Sri Lanka will depend not on how effectively the country is able to suppress remaining Tamil nationalism, but rather it will depend on whether these sentiments have a peaceful outlet in political society. Along with much needed humanitarian assistance, this is likely where Canada, the U.S. and the U.N. will be able to make the greatest impact. The real political action should only be just beginning.

Photo courtesy of Wayne Che

Posted by: Jordan | April 14, 2009

Just who are these liberals and conservatives anyway?

This is a question that has been of great interest to me for a while. Both the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are quite often thrown around as pejoratives; The Liberal being portrayed as unprincipled and hedonistic, and The Conservative as intolerant and regressive. The caricature Liberal promotes gay marriage, redistributive taxation, secularization, multiculturalism, high rates of immigration, increased foreign aid, a small military, internationalization, government regulation of markets, and individualism. The caricature Conservative promotes traditional family values, deregulation of markets, restricted immigration, military power, primacy of state sovereignty, and low taxes.

It’s possible to see some of the problems with the caricatures already, namely that there are numerous internal contradictions within each of these sets of beliefs. Depending on context, our caricature Liberal wants both increased secularization as well as state support for religious minorities. Depending on the context, our caricature Conservative wants deregulated global markets as well as restricted immigration. Moreover, most of us tend to agree with some mix of The Liberal and The Conservative positions — it is quite coherent to say that you support both gay marriage and deregulation of markets.

So where does this leave the ideas of modern liberalism and conservatism? (This is of course ignoring the etymology of both terms – classical liberalism looked a lot more like modern conservatism than it does liberalism, but I digress…) Are these utterly useless terms, referring to political ideologies that don’t actually exist? If so, why do we have political parties here in Canada that call themselves Liberals and Conservatives, and just what makes their platforms liberal or conservative? Why are these two terms tossed around as pejoratives so often if they don’t in fact refer to anything? If Liberals and Conservatives can coherently hold so many of the same positions, where is the true watershed point between these two ideas?

The answer to this, I think, is that it’s all about freedom. As I see it, the fundamental agreement between liberals and conservatives is that the primary goal of political society is to promote freedom. Where modern liberalism and conservatism diverge is on exactly what this means. Does promoting freedom entail the state providing only security and basic infrastructure so that citizens can live how they see fit? Or does promoting freedom instead entail the state providing certain goods (broadly conceived) to each citizen so that each person has an equal chance at success? The most staunch fiscal conservative will likely agree that taxation is needed for public goods like roads and sewage systems, yet will balk at the state-funded healthcare that the liberal sees as a basic necessity.

I believe that if we articulate the fundamental differences over this notion of freedom in modern liberalism and conservatism, we will then be able to trace a meaningful distinction between these two political inclinations. Perhaps more importantly, I think that when we trace this line properly, we will also see that many of the particular positions that are often held out to be liberal or conservative principles will end up being simply untenable, even on their own merits.

Looks like a project for the future…

Posted by: Jordan | February 13, 2009

“Buy Canadian”

The issue of free trade is, and always has been, one of the main battleground issues between “left-wing” and “right-wing” politics (I personally think that these two terms are themselves meaningless, but that is another story), and therefore it always amazes me how public debates on the subject can continue to be so incredibly misleading. Specifically what I have in mind is the recent “buy American” provisions initially included in the economic stimulus plan, and the “buy Canadian” rejoinder provided by NDP leader Jack Layton in a recent Question Period.

The argument in support of economic nationalist stimulus packages is familiar: if taxpayer dollars are being spent to support national industries, then those taxpayer dollars ought to be required to be spent at home, in order to stimulate the domestic economy rather than being spent overseas. In other words, if my tax dollars are going to be spent on this stimulus package, I don’t want domestic producers spending all the cash on materials and labour in China. If the money was required to be spent here in Canada, so the argument goes, supplies and labour would have to come from other Canadian suppliers and workers, who in turn would have more income to buy more or invest, eventually moving us out of recession.

There is something of crucial importance that is missing from this argument. Protectionist policies like Mr. Layton’s “buy Canadian” policy would work, but only if we were the only country that enacted such a policy. If our stimulus dollars were required to be spent in Canada, yet our companies could freely export our products overseas (and to the US in particular), then it would, in principle, work like a charm. But this is never the case. Protectionist measures are virtually always met with protectionist measures, which means when retaliatory protectionist measure are put in place to counter our “buy Canadian” one, all the new products and services that Canadian producers are making with this stimulus money will have nowhere to go.

So why, at this crucial moment when the US is considering a “buy American” policy that would shut out Canadian producers from their largest market, would Mr. Layton suggest an antagonistic policy like “buy Canadian”? How would we begin to convince our biggest trade partner not to institute a “buy American” policy, while we turn around an institute one of our own? This is the other side of the argument that ideological anti-free traders like Mr. Layton conveniently miss, and it is a point on which I think they are far too infrequently pressed on.

This is not intended to be a pro-free trade rant, because in fact, I believe there are many instances where regulations and institutional countermeasures must exist alongside barrier-free trading. Rather, I think the consequences of the ideological anti-free trade view are rarely made as clear as they should be.

Posted by: Jordan | January 22, 2009

Barack Obama and Identity Politics

With the inauguration of President Obama this week, the idea has become prevalent that the last significant racial barrier has been broken in America, and that being born black need no longer limit your options in life. This is significant because it will no doubt have a serious impact on the public’s willingness to support so called “affirmative action” programs, whereby institutions and companies are compelled by law to hire a certain percentage of visible minorities. I suspect we would be having the same conversation here in Canada with respect to academic and other institutions were we to elect an Aboriginal Prime Minister.
I think this idea is true to a point, but it is only half the story. While virtually no one would argue that racism no longer exists, there are many people that believe that it has receded to a point where we no longer need institutional support for racial, cultural, or gender equality. In other words, if a black man can become President of the United States, then a black man can achieve any profession, appointment, or office that he so desires. What is correct about this, I think, is that racism is in steady decline and has reached a point where not all, but most, citizens of the United States understand that there is no such thing as a “racial hierarchy” — there is no inherent superiority or inferiority to being born of any particular race. With the civil rights movement only one generation behind us, this is a very significant achievement, and it deserves to be recognized.

This, as I have said, is only half the story. The important point that is missing here is that people are not recognizing that institutional support for minorities, women, Aboriginals, the disabled, the LGBT community, etc, does NOT exist to correct racism, sexism, or homophobia. The idea is not to “correct” people’s behaviour at all; in fact, in our society you are welcome to be racist, sexist or homophobic if you so choose. Rather, institutional support for these groups is there to make up for institutional inequities that exist as a result of past injustice. The election of Barack Obama is certainly a very symbolic triumph against racism and that should be celebrated, but it says nothing about the persistent disparity of income and wealth between white and black Americans. Affirmative action programs were not put in place to try to correct racism, but rather they are a recognition of the seriously disadvantageous position that black Americans were kept in throughout the times of slavery and segregation. Neither Barack Obama’s family, nor he, were affected either by slavery or unjust racial politics of pre-1960’s America. Thus, while his election is representative of positive changes in attitudes towards racism, it by no means indicates that any representative black man in America has the same opportunity to achieve any job, office or appointment as a representative white man.
Of course, many will achieve great things. Given the same opportunities, any black man or woman is just as likely to succeed as any Anglo, Asian, or Hispanic man or woman. However, the point is that, due to America’s political history, far fewer black men and woman will be given the same kinds of opportunities. A President Obama shows us how quickly racial attitudes can change, but his election will not itself provide any more opportunities to the black community in America. There still remains plenty of need for recognizing systematic inequities presented not only to black men and women, but many other groups as well. The transition into modernity is constantly being marked by a rejection of hierarchies – racial, cultural, and sexual – and institutional action is still needed to right past wrongs that were committed in their name.

Posted by: Jordan | December 29, 2008


Two related questions that have recently been preoccupying me are these: What exactly is “retribution”, and why do so many of us seem to have the need for it?  I’m not talking about situations that make your blood boil after someone commits some egregious and voluntary wrong against you –- knocks you in the teeth, steals your wallet or girlfriend, or murders an innocent person.  I think that initial reaction of wanting to, figuratively or literally, ‘hit back’ can be attributed easily enough to instinct.  What I am more interested in is that enduring feeling that someone ought to pay for the wrong they have done to you.

As far as I can tell, and unless cattle have been quietly plotting their revenge, humans are the only animals that feel this need for retribution.  Moreover, the need seems to be more of a thanatotic urge, than a general conscious rationalization of who deserves what.  We passionately feel driven to exact retribution when some kind of wrong has been committed against us, or against another equally undeserving person.  Forgiving and forgetting doesn’t seem to come naturally, or easily.

I think that this drive for retribution exists on both an individual, as well as societal level.  Currently, the sticking point between the less conciliatory factions of Israel and Palestine is certainly not found in the details of a two-state solution.  Rather, the politics of working out an equitable solution are bogged down in the pervasive feeling that someone ought to pay for the innocent lives already lost at military checkpoints, or through suicide bombings.  Afghan citizens are regularly recruited to take up arms for the Taliban when they feel retribution is owed against the allied forces that bombed their family, or destroyed their livelihood.  Politicians questioning whether military operations in Bosnia were ethnic cleansing, or merely deserved retribution, stoke Serbian nationalism still today.  Examples of this sort in international relations are endless. 

It is not enough that an equitable solution be arranged, or that past wrongs are acknowledged and corrected – someone must be punished for the transgression.  However, it is not punishment, per se, that I am interested in.  Punitive measures are regularly used in law as a deterrent to prevent people from committing wrongs in the first place, or to discourage repeat offenders.  Whether or not this is effective, and whether it explains why punitive measures are included in legal systems is immaterial to the current discussion.  It doesn’t get to the real question of why an individual or society feels the need to exact retribution when they feel they have been wronged.

While we tend to think of the desire for retribution as a more ‘base’ impulse, Nietzsche looked at it without the least bit of condescension. 

“Throughout most of human history, punishment has not been meted out because the miscreant was held responsible or his act, therefore it was not assumed that the guilty party alone should be punished: — but rather, as parents still punish their children, it was out of anger over some wrong that had been suffered, directed at the perpetrator, — but this anger was held in check and modified by the idea that every injury has its equivalent which can be paid in compensation, if only through the pain of the person who injures.” (Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality)

For Nietzsche, the fact that humans are the kind of animal that can make promises to one another, and remember those promises, is of key importance.  What makes us different from, say, chimpanzees, is that humans make implicit promises between one another all the time not to knock each other in the teeth, steal each other’s spouses or wallets, or murder innocent people.  When these promises are broken, then, according to Nietzsche, compensation is demanded in the form of pain inflicted on the offending party, i.e., we demand retribution.  In other words, when someone wrongs us, our need for retribution is a sort of settling of accounts, where the creditor is repaid through pain inflicted on the debtor.  Moreover, this settling of accounts is a perfectly natural, and desirable facet of humanity – it follows from our nature as animals that are able to give promises.  Moral tenets that tell us to “turn the other cheek” when we are wronged, are, according to Nietzsche, an invention of weak humans who are unable to exact appropriate retribution from stronger humans who have wronged them.  The desire to exact retribution is thus developed as a moral failing — “wrath” is, after all, a deadly sin.

So, should we accept the desire for retribution as natural and acceptable?  Is it what in fact makes us human? 

While I think Nietzsche’s sort of answer is intriguing, I tend to think the answer to these questions is still “no” — moreover, I think that when people tacitly buy into this sort of rationalized endorsement of retribution, they contribute to one of the most significant problems of this world.  Retribution is a serious obstacle that prevents many equitable resolutions from ever being realized.  Now, I don’t mean this to be a “why can’t we all just get along” kind of idea.  I think that violence has its place.  However, it is a fine line between violence in the name of justice and retributive violence.  The former can be constructive, but it requires a very structured and well-articulated idea of precisely what the violence is meant to achieve. 

This isn’t to say that I entirely disagree with Nietzsche on whether the desire for retribution is in fact “natural” – that’s a different discussion altogether.  I think it’s pretty evident that the desire for retribution is quite strong, and rejecting it may very well require a break from what comes “naturally” to us.  However, without a prior rejection of the idea of retribution, working out just solutions to interpersonal or societal conflicts becomes entirely academic.  There is little point in working out  just resolutions at all, when each side still believes there is retribution owed.  Deciding how Jerusalem ought to be shared is actually not the difficult part, but rather it is burying the commitment to retribution that is.

Posted by: Jordan | December 29, 2008


This blog is intended to be a place to discuss philosophical and political ideas, ideas about the world and society, public policy, human nature, and everything in between.  I hope that you will all feel welcome to share ideas, link to related stories, and participate in everything that is posted here.



Posted by: Jordan | December 2, 2008



Outside my window