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Looking Backward


So there I was, ambling around the floor at the San Francisco AES, minding everybody else’s business but my own, when I came across a new company from a former Soviet Republic that was showing a really cool-looking tube preamp. I walked around the back and gently poked my finger at it, and that’s the last thing I remember.

“Good morning,” said the strangely familiar voice above me as I struggled into consciousness. “It’s October 29, 2008, and you’re in the Sacramento-by-the-Sea Center for Extended Life.” I blinked a few times and looked up at the man in the white coat. “Yes, you’ve been out for four years. After the first six months, a lot of your readers wanted to just let you expire, but I thought you might be a good candidate for revival so I had you brought here. You’ll notice you’re in good company.” I slowly turned my head and could make out in glass cases on marble slabs around me the frozen body of a fat guy with a huge black pompadour wearing a rhinestone jacket and clutching a Shure 55, another body with wild hair and a left-handed Stratocaster sticking up between his legs and an androgynous being who might once have been Michael Jackson — or perhaps Joan Rivers.

“Big electric shock, right?” I managed to mumble. “Right,” he said as he made some notes on his sleeve, which said “Thank you” back at him. “That preamp you were looking at? The country where it was made never signed any international agreements on electrical safety. Since the U.S. was pulling out of all its treaties, they didn’t see why they should have to. No one told them they shouldn’t put 1,800 volts DC on the chassis. It not only knocked you out, but it also took down the power grid in four states — not that that’s so unusual these days.”

The speaker slowly came into focus and I recognized him with a start. “Grump!” I gasped. “Yes,” he smiled, “but they call me Dr. Grump now. After the record biz collapsed, I answered one of those e-mail diploma offers and I got myself a medical degree from the University of Western New Caledonia. I’m a licensed and board-certified revivificationologist. Since my kid and I did so well for a while digging up old music, I figured it might be fun to dig up old musicians. Welcome to the future!”

I pondered the loss of four years of my life. When I was able to talk again, I croaked, “How did the record industry collapse? Did all that downloading finally take its toll?”

“Heck no, downloading’s all that’s left. Apple’s making way more money on music than they ever did on hardware and even Wal-Mart’s gotten into the game with their Wal-Man player and Wal-Muse Store. It’s particularly cool because it not only keeps track of each song you download, it also knows exactly where you are when you listen to it. CD prices had gone up to $24.99, so naturally, the record stores just dried up and blew away.”

“And the RIAA just let this happen?”

“Are you kidding? The RIAA loves it. No manufacturing, no shipping, no inventory, just electrons flowing out and cash flowing in. And they’ve got friends in big places. Once they finally got their heads out of the sand and figured out what was happening, they bought off enough members of Congress and created their own cabinet-level agency, the Department of Information Security: DIS. Then they got the FCC to put a mandatory surcharge on everyone’s cell phone and Internet bill to offset piracy. Of course, they’re not telling where any of that money goes. Then they got the length of copyright extended to death of the creator’s last descendant plus 200 years and doubled the statutory mechanical royalty — but only for master recordings, not for composing or publishing.

“Now they can just keep charging over and over again for stuff they already own and it doesn’t cost them anything. There’s no point in making any new recordings — there was always that risk that something might not sell a million units — so they just stopped.”

“How do they protect themselves against file sharing?” I wondered. “Didn’t the courts decide that Grokster and those guys weren’t illegal last summer…I mean,” I gulped, “in the summer of ’04?”

“You betcha. So the President made a speech condemning ‘judiciable activism’ and Congress went ahead and passed the Ronald Reagan Inducement of Copyright Infringement Act, which made it illegal to make anything that could possibly be used to get around any type of copy protection. All of a sudden, CD-Rs, DVD-Rs, VCRs and TiVo were toast. As a matter of fact, so was Toast. Remember that kid you knew who wrote Audio Hijack? Well, they put him under a restraining order, and last I heard, he was doing data-entry for H&R Block.”

“But what about people making their own music and selling it on the Web?”

“You can still do that, but after the invasion of Iran, some pissed-off script kiddies hacked into a couple of top-secret DIS directories — they were running the new supersecure WIndows DEbugged OPerational ENgine — and now you can’t put up a Web-commerce site and have it last for more than three days before all your customers’ credit card numbers get snatched and the site turns into an ad for penis pills.”

“Yuck! Did they find those guys?”

“They found them, but they claimed to be under contract to some secret private intelligence service run by Halliburton, and said they were hunting for Osama bin Laden by triangulating his cell phone and his dialysis machine. So now they’re in a federal protection program in a secure, undisclosed location. In the Cayman Islands.”

“But Hollywood is still making movies, right? Don’t they need music?”

“Sure, but the new copyright law says that once a piece of music is used by any corporation, it becomes a ‘work for hire’: You get paid once, if you’re lucky, and then your music doesn’t belong to you any more. Who’s going to work under those conditions? I’ll tell you who: high school students with Garageband Xtreme churning out music by the truckload. The studios pay ’em off in Jolt Cola and movie passes. All they need to do is hire an editor with enough experience to know which 3 percent of the output not to throw in the garbage. If they need a singer, they just look in their own proprietary libraries of vocal-tract impulse responses of everyone from Stevie Wonder to Stevie Nicks, write some lyrics and YamaSony’s VocalDroid 6 does the rest.”

“How about concerts? You can’t put a computer onstage and make people pay to see it, right?”

“When the FCC completely got rid of media ownership limits, Clear Channel bought up all the radio stations they didn’t already have. Since anyone giving a concert in a venue that Clear Channel didn’t own couldn’t get an ad or even any of their songs on the air, not to mention a billboard, the promoters and venue owners all gave up and sold Clear Channel their businesses. So then they put in place a ‘no-play’ list of musicians whose songs they thought were dangerous, and that was the end of those guys’ performing careers.”

“There was all that talk about new music technology getting into the schools. In fact, I think we started putting out a magazine about that. Did that work out?”

“Well, after they lowered the highest-bracket income tax rate to 9 percent, and the price of electricity went up a few-hundred percent, most public school systems started running bake sales so they could afford to keep the power on, which meant there wasn’t a whole lot left over for frills like art, music, foreign languages and erasers. The parents still push the kids to take lessons, so a lot of them are doing it online. They figure if a kid is doing this, then he’s probably not downloading porn or buying drugs. But most computers still come with speaker systems that you wouldn’t put in an old pickup truck, so kids never learn what real music is supposed to sound like.”

I swallowed hard. “Hey!” I exclaimed. “Is there still an AES conference?”

“Well, that’s a sad story. Travel is hard, even if you can afford the gas. With all the extra security, it was taking longer to get onto an airplane than to fly wherever you were going. Airlines cut their fares and tried to hire non-union pilots. The government helped by de-funding the National Labor Relations Board and declaring that any union threatening to strike was a terrorist organization. But after the first couple of mid-air collisions, everyone stopped flying altogether. Amtrak was cut up into little pieces, and each one was told to make a profit or die. But no one had any money to maintain the railbeds, so you couldn’t get from here to there. AES merged with SMPTE and NARAS and NAMM, and now there’s only one combined show every two years at the Jolly Roger Motel in Anaheim. Of course, NAB still brings them in to Vegas.”

“So how do new products get introduced? How does anybody get to kick the tires and hobnob with the developer?”

“What developers? All the decent scientists and engineers have left the country or are working at Starbucks. It started with biotech: After the National Science Foundation announced that they wouldn’t fund any stem-cell research, that whole community got up and moved to Denmark. Pretty soon, a company in Copenhagen came out with a really effective pill for obesity, but if you want to buy it here, it costs $1,200 a month to make up for all the marketing costs. None of the insurance companies will pay for it — not that anybody has insurance any more — so you oughta see the busloads of fat folks heading to Vancouver and Montréal every other Tuesday.”

I pondered this for a moment. “Yeah, but lots of people come up with cool stuff on their own. How about the guy in his basement who’s designing the next new mic or MIDI doohickey or guitar gizmo?”

“The problem with that is as soon you show a prototype, someone in Indonesia is going to reverse-engineer it. They’ll have it on the market at one-third the price it would cost you to make it before you can even locate a vendor for your on/off switches. What’s left of the Customs Service is spending all their time looking for terrorists in barrels of falafel mix, so there’s nothing keeping these knockoffs from getting into the country.”

“But what about software? Anybody can write software and it costs next to nothing to produce and sell it.”

“Yeah, but who’s going to write it? Anyone considering a career as a software engineer is going to be up against millions of people being trained in Asia who are thrilled to work for a tenth of what you need to live on. American companies keep lobbying for tax breaks to hire in India and Pakistan, and for some reason, they keep getting them so that their margins can be even better. American kids see this and figure, what’s the point in learning how to write code? A few of them still do anyway, mostly to hack video games, but even if they come up with something that’s marketable, there’s no way to protect it.”

“What do you mean? Don’t they still enforce copyrights and patents?”

“The DIS is supposed to, but they’re not interested in your copyright unless you can convince them it’s a matter of national security, which means you have to be Disney or Warner Bros. or Fox. So you’re on your own, and that means suing. Since the Federal courts have been packed by double-digit IQs, they’re clogged up for years. And the patent office hasn’t been any help since they moved out of Washington.”

“Out of Washington? Where the heck did they go?”

“The federal budget office found out they could save a few bucks by outsourcing it, so they turned the whole operation over to a company in Uzbekistan as a way of thanking them for being part of that Coalition of the Willing. ‘Course, no one reads English there, but that didn’t matter since the examiners here had stopped reading patent applications years ago. So now it’s all automated.

“Turns out, though, that the Uzbeks have been trying to make a little extra on the side by giving every applicant’s contact info to their spam and phishing divisions. It kind of puts a damper on things when after each time you file a patent application, you have to cancel your e-mail and bank accounts. Some senators are trying to push through a bill, the Secure Computing and Registration Undertaking, or SCRU, that would cancel the Uzbeks’ contract if they don’t stop it, but the President says he’s going to veto the bill since it would constitute unwarranted interference with global free trade. Besides, no one even wants American technology any more.”

“They don’t?”

“No, the whole world has gotten so pissed off at us that they’ve been boycotting everything from Chevrolets to cheddar cheese. And they especially don’t want our music any more.”

I was dumbfounded. “But the America I know wouldn’t put up with this,” I finally managed to blurt. “Isn’t anybody protesting? What happened to Michael Moore and Al Franken and all those musicians and actors who were so good at getting people riled up?”

“The same week that Mike won his six Academy Awards, Congress revived the Sedition Act of 1798. The President made this inspiring speech in which he called it ‘one of the great achievements of our revolutionary forebearers’ and a ‘long-deglected piece of our nationalogical compassionate conservationist heritage,’ and they gave him a standing ovation and went ahead and passed it, even though no one had actually read it. It turned out that it made any statements of any kind against the government or any of its officials or their actions a felony with a mandatory sentence of 20 years.

“The first person they went after was Bruce, but they let him plead to misdemeanor treason as long as he agreed to re-record ‘Born In the USA’ without any of the verses and sell the exclusive rights to Rupert Murdoch so he could use it as his theme song. After that, Franken went back to writing jokes for Saturday Night Live, Steve Earle and the Dixie Chicks learned Chinese and took off on a five-year tour, Tim Robbins got into soft-core and Moore ended up in France making Euro-anime.”

I closed my eyes and lay back on my slab, wishing I had never woken up. “How could this have happened?” I whimpered. “How could such a great country let itself get into this state?”

Paul Lehrman would like to thank Jock Gill and David Battino for their ideas and inspiration. And please don’t forget to vote.