Sunday, December 27, 2009

A music/governance metaphor

I’m still struggling to find a usable taxonomy for “new methods of governance” for the internet. A conversation with Grisha Krivchenia, a music teacher, prompted this attempt at analogy. Since my knowledge of music and its history is sketchy, any corrective comments would be gratefully received.

Let’s start with a particular musical tradition: harpsichord pieces in the High Baroque. Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations, for example, with a particular instrument and even performer (Goldberg) in mind. The performer has many options, however, regarding tempo and mood. When the same score is played on a different instrument, e.g. the piano, an additional set of choices and opportunities arise.

Same score, different instrument(s)

A score written for one instrument can be played by another one with no change; for example, one can play a flute piece on the oboe. However, figurations that were easy for the intended instrument may be hard for the new one. Some instrument changes require transpositions of notes to a new key, for example playing the flute piece on a clarinet (pitched in C and B-flat, respectively). Even if the notes are the same, the music will be different.

As an example of the music/governance metaphor in action, consider libel. The same laws of defamation apply to web pages just as much as to a paper pamphlet; however, some additional interpretation is required from the judge when applying statute and common law developed for paper to the internet.

A slightly more extensive change comes about when music scored for one ensemble (e.g. strings) is re-arranged for another (woodwinds). Both the individual and blended characters of the instruments differ, and the character of the piece can change quite markedly. A possible analogy is the application 911 requirements for phone access to emergency services to Voice over IP devices. The desired policy result and the requirements in law are the same, but the implementation may have to be different. For example, “911” is actually an area code rather than a phone number, and its implementation in VoIP was debated. Further, 911 calls are delivered to a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) determined by the location of the caller – which may not be easy to determine for an internet device.

Once the piano exists, it enables new forms of music. First, performers can radically rethink a piece: Glenn Gould’s Goldbergs, to cite a late example. Second, composers wrote pieces for the piano in ways that were inconceivable in the age of the harpsichord: Liszt and Chopin. An analogy in regulation might be the way in which the Kodak camera prompted the overhaul (or arguably invention) of privacy law. [1] Another one might be the way in which the internet if forcing a rethinking of common carriage rules as they apply to telecommunications carriers. [2]

New compositions, same instruments

However, new approaches to composition can come about without new instruments – the shift to atonal music (i.e. lacking a central key) associated with Berg, Schoenberg and Webern supposedly arose from the “crisis of tonality” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century . An analogy in communications policy might be the emergence of exclusive-use radio licenses allocated by auctions in wireless regulation: they were prompted by insights from economics (e.g. Coase and the privatization movement more generally) rather than by changes in technology.

New performances

Music can also change purely as a result of changes in performance practice. An unattributed assertion in Wikipedia states that “changes in performance practice made by prominent musicians often reverberated in the playing of many other musicians.” Other candidates for this phenomenon is the use of bel canto in early 20th century opera, the use of a clear declamatory vocal style in the French operatic tradition, and the dramatic increases in the minimum technical accuracy required of performers of classical music. One can see this effect in governance too, particularly where common-law is used; interpretations and precedent are cumulative. An ongoing example is software patents: legal scholar Mark Lemley stated at a Silicon Flatirons conference in March 2009 that over the last three years, courts have fixed most of the problems that have been grist for the software patent debate. I presume there are also fashions in jurisprudence, just as there are in music – but here again my lack of knowledge fails me…

A change in venue also makes a difference. The Wikipedia article on the history of the orchestra suggests that the 18th century change from civic music making where the composer had some degree of time or control, to smaller court music making and one-off performance, placed a premium on music that was easy to learn, often with little or no rehearsal. The results were changes in musical style from the counterpoint of the baroque period to the classical style, and emphasis on new techniques such as notated dynamics and phrasing. I believe that the shift in the stakeholder landscape in telecoms from an insider’s club of a few, large firms and regulators to a global plethora of companies and regulators of all sizes is in the process of changing governance, but we don’t have the luxury of 200 years to discern the key developments.

Tentative conclusions

The analogy of music to governance is as follows:
  • Composer – policy maker (legislator or regulator with quasi-legislative powers, like the FCC)
  • Score – law, rule or regulation
  • Instrument – technology and social context
  • Performer – judge (or quasi-judicial actor, e.g. the FCC)
  • Audience – interest groups, stakeholders, citizens, etc.
Discerning the metaphor mapping for governance itself is harder – though no harder than I find understanding what “governance” means, period… Perhaps they’re both just the “meta”: music is the aggregate of all the actors and activities related to making music, and the same for governance. The useful insight for me is that all the elements – composer, score, etc. – are necessary to make music, and likewise for governance. Any focus just on policy makers, or just on regulations, or just on the courts etc. will understate the problem.

In terms of new kinds of music/governance, we see
  1. Changes of instruments (technology) that require only minor changes in the score (law)
  2. Changes that prompt composers (policy makers) to invent new genres (rules), either as a result of new technologies or the internal development of the genre itself
  3. Changes brought about by shifts in performance (judicial) practice
The performers (judges) plays an important creative role; they can change the import of a score (law) by their interpretation in the context of a new instrument (technology). It may be that judges are most influential when the policy makers have not yet caught up with changes in technology – they are making music on new instruments using the old scores.

This short taxonomy focuses on the upstream part of the performance value chain. New kinds of music arise most visibly from new compositions and/or new instruments, but performance and audience play roles in disseminating and validating them. Likewise, new forms of governance need to be enacted by courts and accepted by stakeholders before taking hold; new technology and new law are only part of the picture.

Update 12/28/2009: See the comments for some great thoughts from Jon Sallet about the role of improvisation in music and governance. His conclusion: "In a world of change and uncertainty, discretion is an important tool; discretion that is applied by professionals (like trained musicians), within guidelines (like the old rule against using augmented fourths) but that calls upon the expertise of the composer and the performer both to work, as it were, in harmony."


[1] Robert E. Mensel, ""Kodakers Lying in Wait": Amateur Photography and the Right of Privacy in New York 1885-1915", American Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 24-45, PDF available.

[2] James V DeLong, “Avoiding a Tech Train Wreck”, The American, May/June 2008


Jon said...

Pierre, your use of metaphor is helpful, allowing us to consider the implications of governance through another lens.

And your application of musical theory is apt. To take a common example, the choice of keys isn't very important for the piano (although my piano teacher says that Chopin would sometimes pick a key based on the possible fingering) but very important for a string instrument like a guitar, where "open" strings provide a different resonant than fingered notes.

There's one implication that particularly strikes my (musical) fancy. In Mozart's time, the usual practice of musicians was to improvise off of the written score. Later, it was said that Franz List played a piece best when he played it first; because the first time was the only time he wrote it as the composer intended. So, improvisation might, or might not, improve a composition but what it did do was this -- join the composer and musician in a collaboration of creativity. That tradition has largely disappeared from classical music (some would say that it moved to jazz where improvisation is central). To me, the role of improvisation is a metaphor for the similar role of policymakers operating under an organic statute or officials like administrative law judges applying principles articulated by an agency like the FCC. (As you say this can also be seen as application of common-law reasoning).

In a world of change and uncertainty, discretion is an important tool; discretion that is applied by professionals (like trained musicians), within guidelines (like the old rule against using augmented fourths) but that calls upon the expertise of the composer and the performer both to work, as it were, in harmony.

Jon Sallet

Karl Mattson said...

Fantastic. I've been struggling with describing needs for stronger IT services governance, and I believe this metaphor holds up very well. Thanks for taking the time to draw out the metaphor in such detail.

Pierre de Vries said...

Thanks, Karl. I'd be fascinated to learn more about your thinking regarding IT services governance.