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Music, public spaces, civic engagement, and how to not let copyright stand in the way

Just came across Undersound, a very cool project at

It’s a prototype being developed that fuses Mp3 players, file sharing, and riding the Tube in London and brings it to the next level – kind of a futuristic, interactive labyrinth of music sharing. People riding the Tube upload and download songs from various stations, and from others that are in the same carriage as they ride the tube. The designers‘ goal is to infuse “riding the Tube and listening to the Mp3 player” with social interaction, a sense of place, and a lesson in one’s role in the globally connected world (and that you do have an impact):

“Through the stories that each of the [music] tracks tells us, I can now see that my personal choices have a global effect and, if I so desire, I can alter my course of action with this new knowledge in hand.”

Such a project seems such a logical extension of mobile technology practices and culture of sharing that are the norm in the Digital Native life. It is also so filled with promise – not only in looking towards a solution in issues that are creeping up in regards to the loss of a social public (as Robert Putnam and Sherry Turkle point to) due to mobile technologies (and their propensity to take us “elsewhere” than where we physically are), but also to encourage civic engagement. Our research is showing that youth that are engaged in social or political issues do use digital tools to learn more about, promote and discuss their cause, but it doesn’t *seem* as though the web itself (and the capabilities if offers) actually encourages such engagement. It seems as though a project like Undersound – where you actually see your ripple/global effect upon the system and others, would very much encourage civic engagement among a new generation…and on their own (filesharing) terms.

But how can such a project co-exist with copyright regulations? Well, how about Creative Commons? By allowing a system to only accept files with appropriate CC licenses – projects like Undersound can become legal, and thereby, become reality. In the digital world, when there’s a problem, think about the technological solution! As my colleagues at Berkman point out, systems can be put in place to read the metadata off any file, filtering out any files that are shared with out artist permission. Beyond social and civic potentials in Undersound, one can see how such a project just become a huge opportunity for unsigned artists.

Currently, file sharing happens on grand anonymous scales, and people travel throughout cities often disconnected from the space they’re in, and the people around them – Undersound brings together file sharing and mobile technology, and brings with it the benefits of social connection, of enabling people to see their impact on a larger system, and of course, of sharing music.

Hey, I’d enjoy my morning T-ride a whole lot more 😉

– Miriam S.