Archive: July 3rd, 2005

Live 8: music, politics and network theory

I have just one or two things I need to get off my chest and then I’ll stop banging on about Live 8.

My first thought is to do with music. Based on yesterday’s experience in Hyde Park, it’s clear that there are economies of scale involved with musical events.

I don’t want to sound like a whinging indie kid with an obscure band name on my t-shirt, insisting that any concert in a venue bigger than a toilet isn’t worth going to, but there is definitely a cut-off point after which a concert ceases to be a performance and becomes simply an event. The speed of sound alone is a limiting factor. There were times yesterday when the sound was one second behind the images being displayed on screen.

But, as I keep reminding myself, it’s not about the music. Then again, if it’s not about the music, why go to the extraordinary effort to organise huge concerts all over the globe?

Awareness, we are told, is the key. And I agree. Raising awareness (and ire and indignation) is clearly a hugely important first step in solving problems. My issue lies with the method. I don’t think that giant concerts by famous rock stars are the way to do it.

From one look around the blog neighbourhood this morning, it’s clear that the performances have divided as much as they have united. People are talking about debt relief but they are also talking about the music industry, celebrities and the motivations of well-off musicians engaged in this enterprise.

Putting on a huge concert certainly seems like the obvious choice for creating a media event to draw attention to important issues. Messrs Geldof and Vox have plenty of experience in the logistics involved. But I don’t think it’s an efficient way of really spreading a meme.

We were reminded many times over the course of yesterday’s events just how many people were watching all over the world. That’s good, but spreading an idea isn’t just about raw numbers. The broadcast model is an outdated way of reaching a connected world.

Organising a massive concert is the media equivalent of a broadcast search. What’s really needed, in my opinion, is the media equivalent of a distributed search. Instead of trying to reach everyone, it makes more sense to reach the connectors and mavens in a network (to use Gladwell’s terminology), who can then pass on the message to the nodes in their network neighbourhood.

The world isn’t so much a giant network as it is a network of small world networks. I’m not sure myself how best to translate this knowledge into an effective campaign but I’m fairly sure that the broadcast model isn’t it. It is too short-lived, its actors too far removed from the audience, to be effective over time.

The music played at the Live 8 concerts was, to a large degree, a distraction.

At the same as Dido, Travis, et al were playing in London, people were marching on the streets of Edinburgh. This is certainly preferable to standing in a field listening to the alpha males of popular culture, it has become such a common protest technique as to be almost pedestrian. The largest protest ever seen in the history of the United Kingdom was the march on London against the Iraq war. It made no difference at all to policy.

I wish I could offer an alternative but I can’t. All I know is that it involves utilising the power of small world, peer to peer networks in society. The top-down approach of having a politician or a rock star pontificate to the masses no longer works. We need a many to many, rather than a one to many, relationship.

I don’t have the smarts to connect the dots but I hope somebody else does. The broad brushstrokes are already there… Six Degrees: The Science Of A Connected Age, Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks and Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution.

The second thing I want to get off my chest involves the politics of Live 8. Everyone is talking about aid. Everyone is talking about debt relief. That’s good. But there are a couple of elephants in the living room and everyone is tip-toeing around them.

The first is the arms trade. It is insulting and condescending to think that we could relieve countries of their debts and double their aid while at the same time continue to sell weapons to those same countries. We cut them in half with a gun and then we give them a band aid.

The arms trade to developing nations needs to stop. Now. I have yet to hear a cogent defence of the blood-sucking arms trade other than "it creates jobs." On the scale of social issues, domestic employment pales in comparison to mass killing and starvation.

The other issue touches on a subject that will really test whether people are willing to follow through on their declared commitment to helping Africa. I don’t just mean politicians, I mean the average man in the street.

Not once in the course of the Live 8 event did I hear the word "subsidy". Yet subsidies are the very boots we are using to keep the African farmer pressed into the dust.

Unless we start talking about the evil consequences of subsidies, we are likely to end up with a doublethink situation whereby people deplore the plight of people in Africa whilst insisting that farmers in their own country deserve an artificial prop for their business model.

Please, please, please read The Hunger Barrier, a post by Tim Bray:

"There’s no nice way to say this: The world’s richest countries are deliberately, and as a matter of policy, promoting poverty and starvation in the world’s poorest countries."

It is uncomfortable and it doesn’t come with a soundtrack, but this is important.

If you are reading this, you are connected to me. We are adjacent nodes in some kind of invisible network. I’m asking you, node to node, neighbour to neighbour, to please read The Hunger Barrier.

And when you’re done, pass it ‘round the small world networks, online and offline, that collectively form your world.

That was Live 8

I couldn’t take any more punishment. The cumulative effect of Joss Stone, The Scissor Sisters and Velvet Revolver drove me out of Hyde Park. If I had stuck around to endure the pain of Robbie Williams and Mariah Carey, I fear that my exploding head would have made a terrible mess all over the happy families.

The up-side to bailing out early was that I was whisked back to Brighton in a near-empty train. The down-side is that I missed Pink Floyd. But to be honest, I think it would be better to just watch it on television anyway. Just being in a five mile radius of a stage doesn’t really feel like being there.

I’m afraid the whole day has left me feeling quite depressed and cynical about popular music. I’m trying not to let that cynicism bleed into my thoughts on the political agenda of Live 8. It’s tough though: I know the concerts were supposed to raise awareness of very important issues, which is admirable. But my awareness of the political situation was already in place before going to Hyde Park. Now it’s coupled with an awareness of just how crap most popular music is these days.

Ah, well. I’m sure it came across a lot better on telly.

I’ve put together a Flickr photoset which captures my impressions of the day in the park.