Ubuntu in Korea, with Ramblings on Piracy, Free Culture, Bollywood, and The Long Tail

I’m just geeking out about Ubuntu Linux here, which branch out to piracy, free culture, Bollywood, and alternative distribution systems using the Internet. I already didn’t know much about what I was going on about at the point of Linux, so this al might be a load of bull puckey. Or there might be some gems mixed in with the bull turds, you never know. But if you demand people only to write about things they know really well, go read something else. If, on the other hand, you want to help disabuse me of my mistaken notions and help me think this through better, feel free to read and comment.

Well, I finally got Synaptic Package Manager working. I have no idea how, but my hostname was erased from my hostname and hosts file, I think as part of the process that installed the otherwise wonderful EasyUbuntu package that fixed endless numbers of problems with my installation. Well, from the root directory I managed to edit the files and add in the missing info, as per advice I found on the forums.

There’s a sense in which using Linux is somewhat like being a pioneer on the prairie. It’s like roughing it on the electronic bush, or at least that’s the impression I get. Not that I’m roughing it with Ubuntu. For the most part, I still know very very little about Linux, but the little bit of work I’ve had to do at the command line to get this thng running properly has really driven home how really, I don’t know, piecemeal the whole thing is. It’s like the very old days, where you had to, you know, rip out of a piece of wall to put in a newfangled gas pipe, and then another piece of wall for the newfangled indoor plumbing. When these new things start behaving strangely, you can’t just sort of guess what’s wrong with them… you have to ride into town and consult with other people t see what the heck it might be. And it is might be, mind: whatever problems you’re experiencing may well express similar symptoms to others’, but be rooted in a rather different problem. So you ride back out of town, and check the septic tank, but it’s okay. You go back into town, someone says it’s mice in the walls, so you go home and check that, and it’s not mice, it’s a disconnected pipe. So you fix it.

And then something else starts creaking.

I’m not complaining, though. It may sound like I am, but I’m not. It’s kind of fun, actually, and I get now, a little bit, why Neal Stephenson was so emphatic about it in that (by his own description) dated essay of his, “In the Beginning was the Command Line”. You feel like you have your own hands in the guts of the computation you’re doing, as if you’re intervening directly in the processes by which your computer does what, if you stop and think about it for a moment, are some pretty amazing tasks. You can personalize, customize, and alter all kinds of things, as long as you’re willing to go back and fix the messes you create for yourself.

Granted, this is something that’s not going to be popular among any majority, and Koreans are no exception. The reason I think Ubuntu won’t catch on in Korea isn’t that I think more Koreans would prefer to have all the settings created for them, though I find that in general Korean internet communities very, very comfortable with just using web services with very little customization available. There’s a level on which I can even appreciate that, whether I encounter it in Korea or elsewhere: after all, if the content is the most important thing, who cares about layout?

Well, you see, I do. I want layout to be easy, I want to be able to work with it, to change it. Maybe I wont do it for months at a time, but I like to have the freedom.

But that’s not what I think would keep people in Korea from adopting Ubuntu or some other form of Linux as their main OS. It’s not the learning curve, since after all Ubuntu will probably, in a couple of releases, be even easier to install than Windows XP.

What I think will prevent people from switching to Linux here is that nobody else will do it. Now, wait a minute before you get on my case about this, let me explain myself.

      A lot of people like to be used to the platform they’re working on. For me, the switch to the Ubuntu desktop was almost no change at all. It’s a GUI, essentially like any other decent GUI, and the change wasn’t a big deal. I had more trouble switching to the Mac GUI, but only because some of the shortcut keys weren’t intuitive for me, that’s all. But I think a lot of people would express annoyance if a PC-Bang switched over to Ubuntu, simply because it’s unfamiliar, and that aura of unfamiliarity would turn people off before they even got started.
      Comfort and usefulness for the broadest base of users isn’t just an administrative issue in Korea: it’s an issue of profit. One of the biggest computer industries here is the public-use service provider, the PC-Bang, known in the West as the Internet Cafe. And unfortunately for Ubuntu, most of the use in these places is multi-user gaming, not basic internet and word processing. While Linux is amazingly stable, very smooth, and fast as all get-out, running games programmed for Windows under Win emulation is not only going to be slower, it’s going to be costly, as people will abandon the that PC-Bang for one that runs Windows games in their native environment. So there’s a market incentive not to change, one that doesn’t quite exist in North America right now.
      The last problem is standards. Firefox is the main browser in Ubuntu Linux, and while I think it’s wonderful — I get this awfully annoyed feeling whenever I’m in Internet Explorer and forced to open twenty little windows for my various tasks — there is the fact that a lot of people code pages to specifically work in IE; some of those pages, in addition, ONLY work in IE, under Windows. Lime tested out Firefox last night using the Naver page and services, and said that while Firefox in Ubuntu was better than Firefox under Windows — it loaded Naver’s services better — there were still problems with the way it handled the pages. I also noted that some of the feedback Firefox provided was less intuitive for her, though for me it wasn’t quite contra-intuitive (suggesting it was a particular user issue, not a general issue, or else suggesting that I’m a bigger GUI geek than she is). But while I find that a lot of Western service providers try to serve up web pages that work fine in any browser or platform, Korean ones simply tend to assume you’re going to be accessing their pages in IE. There are Flash sequences that don’t work no matter how many times you install a recent version of Flash; these flash sequences are the only way to access certain things. There are pages that load messed up, or don’t let you follow links, or that load with important links not displayed.

      Perhaps I just haven’t optimised the way my installation of Ubuntu handles webpages, but I have a feeling the real issue is standards. These pages apparently work completely fine under IE running in Windows.

If you suddenly require people to emulate Windows to access the websites they care about, and make it harder for them to use the applications they want to run (games designed to run in Windows), you’ve suddenly destroyed most of the usefulness of an OS to that population. And games are a huge part of why computers are so popular in Korea, and Korean-specific web services (like Naver’s and Daum’s, which again, seem to work much more smoothly in IE) make up almost the bulk of the remainder of desktop computer use. So while Ubuntu is wonderful and cool to my mind, I can see why it has a very, very long way to go before it will make any inroads among regular users in Korea.

Or, and the real last reason:

      While I feel qualms about Windows, about pirating it and having to hack in the update function and all, and I’m not willing to buy it, and consider the fact that Ubuntu is both free and legal

    an attraction, I think it’s safe to say that most younger Koreans don’t really make a strong distinction between legally free computer content, and illegally free computer content.

When I mentioned to students in my Media English class last night that I was compiling a list of sites where they could download free, legal English media content, they laughed and some of them repeated the word “legal” to me questioningly… not because they wondered what I meant, but because they wondered why I bothered to make the distinction.

The fact that you don’t have to steal Linux to run it free hardly matters when nobody you know has paid for his or her installation of Windows, either. It could hardly matter less, and sadly, I take this as a confirmation of Professor Lessig’s argument toward the end of Free Culture that if piracy becomes a normative behaviour, a common means of fighting back against increasingly oppressive media conglomerates and their insane crusade to control all content, then all societies involved in that mode of fighting back will emerge with a radically degraded sense of law, justice, and fair use.

To which I, as a content-creator myself, add: the rapacious destruction of fair use by greed conglomerates results in the resultant mutual destruction of concern for fair use by users; but are we naive enough to think that when the conglomerates are finally struck down by the multitudes of Davids and their P2P slings, those Davids will be happy to drop their slings and start paying a fair rate for the content and software that they choose to use?

I don’t think so. And so I think it will be that much harder for the establishment of whatI see as optimal, a cottage-industry of creative-commons content-providers made possible by all that computers open up to us. I think we’ve set that back many years by not electing to steal, instead of forcing the media conglomerates to barter with us, while, after all, we do have the upper hand. We could, after all, refuse to pay unfair rates, and we could just consume other media.

What we need is a major industry to embrace this, and to make money off it, and to be honest and forthcoming about it, for the others to take notice. An industry that isn’t completely tied up in the Western one, an industry that is already taking a loss on the long-term distribution through already-established rampant piracy. Say… Bollywood? (Maybe Ritu could confirm this, I don’t know.)

I am sure that Bollywood could put together a world-download film industry; a year after release, films go to downloadable status. Charge the ruppee equivalent of a buck per film downloaded, one-use-onlys (two bucks more for the right to download again at some point), high quality, and legal. They wouldn’t even have to compete with Hollywood; all they’d have to do was get filthy rich on it, and Hollywood would sit up and take notice. And best of all, they would simply be matching the pirate fees, since pirated DVDs usually cost a buck anyway. And no wasted plastic on the physical DVD, unless the user chose to back up the file. I mean, this is win-win, right?

And yes, I know that a massive number of people who use the pirated films don’t have PCs to download the movies. We don’t need to get everyone, just enough people to cut into the culture of piracy in an exemplary way. And I know that big, long downloads would be jeopardized somewhat with the commonality of powercuts in places like India and surrounding nations where Bollywood films aremost popular, but (a) we’re not just targeting people in India, but people in countries where such powercuts are unheard of, (b) it’d be possible to create an engine that allowed tracked, resumable downloads for those who aren’t able to keep their power running for long once the power cuts, and (c) remember that the rest of the cinema infrastructure is still in place: the big profits in the cinemas would continue, and whatever profits from production of the original for-sale DVDs would still be in place for the first year or so (which, I’d wager, is when the bulk of the profits would be in place). The added advantage to both consumer and seller would be the effect of the Long Tail (see also this Wired article), which made otherwise unavailable content available to potential buyers at a reasonable price on the one hand, and allowed copyright owners to continue to make profits, however relatively small, on content that otherwise would simply be completely unavailable and unprofitable.


2 thoughts on “Ubuntu in Korea, with Ramblings on Piracy, Free Culture, Bollywood, and The Long Tail

  1. Pirating software has been endemic in that part of the world for awhile.

    Dan’s company sold 3 copies of their software into Taiwan in 1992 or 1993. Within a year, that software was the standard for doing what it did in Taiwan.

    They ended up shipping dongles with the software; the software wouldn’t run on hardware that didn’t have the correct dongle. That worked for a few years. Don’t know how much business they did in Asia with the dongles, but it helped keep them from going down (unlike some of their competitors, don’t know how much was the lack of dongle and how much was less-than-superior software, but the dongles had a noticeable effect, anyway).

  2. Yes, piracy is just the assumed thing here in Korea, too. From what I’ve heard, the main crackdowns on media piracy involve the pirating of Korean films, which may be why it’s so easy t get pirated Western movies, but (these days) it seems slightly harder to get Korean ones. If you go to one of those freelance computer fixit guys, it’s usually assumed he can give you a copy of the newest version of your OS and of course there’s no issues with paying for an official licensed copy.

    It’s worse in other East Asian countries, though, I think. I have heard that the Chinese government itself routinely uses pirated software; hackers in China who are the subject of piracy crackdowns laugh at this fact and note that the crackdowns are really just performances for non-Chinese audiences; they seem to agree with Neal Stephenson’s long-ago assertion that “hacking” (the appropriation and retasking of foreign things, including foreign tech) is simply a fundamental in Chinese culture and life (somewhere in this article, if memory serves).

    Piracy’s a complicated issue, of course. With a case like Dan’s company, where piracy cuts off the sustainability of the core service, I think it’s just stupid.

    But when it is simply a refusal to pay more into what is a richer-than-God company, such as, say, Microsoft, I’m less certain it’s a moral wrong. I say this because, I suppose, I tend to doubt the bigger-picture morality of any single individual or group having the right to hoard money (which is, after all, just a concretation of power). I don’t know, it just seems to me that once you have created The Most Widely Accepted Platform which is used by most businesses and plenty of governments and so on, and once you’ve made Dogpiles of Money, So Much Money You’ll Never Have To Work Again, you might consider, I don’t know, giving it away for free. Wouldn’t you agree that not doing is arguably a symptom of some kind of insanity? I don’t know; it seems to me a Windows Final Release would be a cool way to end Gates’ career. It’s free, all the source code is out there, and it’s up to the world to make it better, or tear it apart.

    (There are profound dangers in that idea, too; if source code were available, some people would be searching for every little security leak they could find. But then again, half or more of those people would be seeking them only in order to plug or remove them forever. What if Windows finally did become the new Linux? Actually, this came up in the very far background, and only in very brief passing, in one of the stories I finished recently, but I plan on exploring it more in another short piece.)

    There are better ways in the here and now of subverting Microsoft’s power, of course — ways that don’t involve inflicting their products on yourself, such as switching to, say, Mac, or Linux, or some other alternative OS for as much of your computing as possible — but those ways aren’t quite yet suitable for everyone, and it’s understandable. If I were ten years older, installing even a flavour of Linux as accessible as Ubuntu on the PC I’m using now would have been difficult enough to scare me off for at least a few years more, maybe back into Windows-land forever.

    There’s a final case that I want to consider, though, which is regarding businesses like those that make up the recording industry (ie. members of the RIAA); now, these outfits have treated artists like crap since their very beginnings, and now are routinely engaged in actively lying about their “losses” in order to cast the emerging online technologies in the worst light possible. Their collapse is something I don’t believe will hurt the actual core workers in those industries — the best sound engineers, the recording and performing artists — at least, I dont think the collapse would hurt these artists in the long run. In this case, I have very little in the way of qualms about saying that piracy might well be almost a good thing, as the second-most effective way of dismantling the strangehold that these companies have on our culture’s musical culture. That is, if we can avoid getting so used to stealing music and video that when individuals finally do cut out as much of the middle-man as possible, those individuals can manage to make at least a little income off their creative work.

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