(The following piece was written for an essay collection entitled Chaos We Can Stand, to be published by the music tech blog Hypebot in the coming months. Each of the essays in the collection is inspired by Clay Shirky’s recent book, Cognitive Surplus, in particular his assertion that innovators should push for “as much chaos as we can stand” in implementing new technologies. The rest should be self-explanatory.)
Towards the conclusion of his book Cognitive Surplus, social media theorist Clay Shirky argues for letting technology innovators do pretty much whatever they want, insisting that we gain in the long run as a society when these “would-be revolutionaries,” as he calls them, are not hindered by existing structures of any kind, be they economic, social, cultural, whatever.
Allowing innovators to innovate without constraint does not, however, mean that as a society we end up with chaos, or even anything like it. Shirky is simply arguing for an appropriate division of labor here: let innovators innovate, because that’s what they do. And let society at large figure out the eventual best use of the innovations, because that’s what society at large does.
Not at all a radical statement on the benefits of widespread chaos (although it’s easy to misread as such), Shirky’s words on the matter instead offer a sly but definitive argument for the crucial role non-innovators play in the diffusion of technological innovation into the wide world.
We may as well let those who would innovate try everything, he says, “because most of it will fail.” These so-called “radicals,” he notes, “won’t be able to create any more change than the members of society can imagine.”
What’s more, he adds, the innovators themselves cannot correctly predict the eventual ramifications of their own innovations, because “they have an incentive to overstate the new system’s imagined value,” and because they “lack the capacity to imagine the other uses to which the tools will be put.”
Chaos, in other words, is not an end point but a starting point. It’s a simple truth, but one almost all “would-be revolutionaries” forget.
Shirky’s words, properly read, shed interesting new light on the trouble the music industry has had over the last 10 years or so as new technology has been introduced, unleashing a fair amount of what certainly looks like chaos in its wake.
The innovators, you see, have done their work. It was not the job of those responsible for the creation of MP3 files or P2P file-sharing technology to worry about how their innovations might wreak havoc on existing business models, occupations, or tender artistic psyches.
But—here’s the news flash—it is our job to worry about all of those things, and more. It’s our job as members of society not to succumb to technologist hype or the self-serving rationales of any interest group determined to spin the technology in their direction. It’s our job to make sure we only start with chaos, not end up there.
And this is a very hard job in the 21st century, make no mistake. It’s well and good to let the innovators dream big, but it’s another thing when some of their more anarchic ideas get tossed into the interactive free-for-all/media sideshow that has come to define public discourse.
The combination of social-media-addled mobs and eyeball-crazy web sites, not to mention ratings-happy broadcast media, can make it really difficult for important and reasonable cultural considerations to be properly tended to, or even rationally discussed.
Think about how P2P file-sharing spread so rapidly, and how little most of the people sharing music that way gave any clear thought to the morality of what they were doing—as if basic human justice were somehow no longer necessary because we now had a new and very convenient toy. And think about how today, 10 or so years later, we have millions of people who appear to believe there is nothing wrong with taking, for free, something that the thing’s owner did not intend to give them for free.
And—perhaps more importantly—there are untold numbers more who, whether they think it right or wrong, feel there’s “no going back,” that there’s nothing anyone can do about the rampant sharing of music, whether for or against the wishes of those whose music it is.
But it was not, to repeat, the job of those who introduced the technologies that fueled the P2P networks to think about the chaos it might create. It is most certainly our job, however, as human beings attempting to function together, not only to think about it but to begin, slowly and steadily, to rein it in. Chaos is neither a business plan nor a way of life.
To abandon our humanity in the face of new technology, however gee-whizzy, is to forgo an important function, and to risk widespread cultural—and, even, dare I suggest, spiritual—damage.
Things have gotten particularly hairy here in the music industry because the chaos introduced by technological innovation has been joined at the hip with the powerful, atavistic force of plunder: taking for free what you can simply because you won’t get caught. Satisfying a pretty much reptilian-brain urge, P2P file-sharing became compulsive and seemingly unstoppable.
And so, over these 10 years, the technological innovation of P2P file-sharing has steadily become linked to the idea that recorded music must now be free. This is an irrational and chaotic conclusion to draw but it surely has a powerful allure.
Because the drive to perpetuate the behavior is primal and seemingly uncontrollable, freeloader defenses ultimately resemble excuses addicts give for their habit. “It’s not really stealing because nothing’s being taken,” many will say. “The music industry has screwed us all so screw them,” say others. “We’re already paying to be online; it’s not my problem that the musicians aren’t getting a cut of that,” is a particularly wily defense. Another creative rationale: “In the old days, no one paid for music anyway.”
The arguments are specious and self-serving. (For more on this, see “The Free Music Mirage,” published on Fingertips in May.)
Whatever the specific rationales habitual freeloaders use to justify their craving for taking music for free, one thing they all have in common is a blithe disregard for the cultural value of paid transactions. It’s a huge blind spot. And this is where we, as “members of society,” charged by Shirky himself with reining in the chaos, can begin to do our work, keeping our collective eye on a larger social good than can be envisioned by technological innovators.
Chaos is not easily tamed, to be sure. I suspect Shirky himself has underestimated the extent to which chaos may appeal to certain sub-groups, rendering its mischief more widespread and difficult to counteract than he implies with breezy statements like “the radicals won’t be able to create any more change than the members of society can imagine.” Our world is rather too fractured and fractious to be able to generalize about what one monolithic group called “members of society” will or will not accept in terms of innovative chaos.
But I do believe, as the dust settles on the P2P revolution, that widespread consensus can begin to be forged that will undermine the plunderfest and its perpetrators.
Understand, first, that when I speak of the value of paid transactions, I’m not talking about record company profits. These I don’t care about. No one does, except the record companies themselves, and they’ve long since lost credibility when it comes to money, thanks to their often craven history—from exploitative artist contracts to rapaciously priced CDs to support of unfair copyright guidelines to attempting to “solve” the P2P problem by suing music fans.
I’m talking instead about the interpersonal, human-level value built into the act of giving someone something of value to you in return for something of value from him or her. Typically, of course, the thing of value you hand over in exchange for some other thing is currency, as that has developed as the easiest way to negotiate such transactions on a society-wide basis.
The basic idea of “I give you this so you give me that” has been present in human marketplace transactions for thousands of years. When someone is not willing to play along, we call him a criminal. (Or a toddler, who is developmentally shy of the self-control required to participate in a marketplace.)
Without an exchange of roughly equal value occurring, a marketplace becomes a cruel power game in which one party gets what he wants while offering nothing of equal value in return. Social damage is the inevitable long-term result. That freeloaders are generally unaware of this damage does not mean it is not real, that it is not in fact piling up even as we speak.
I find it interesting that those who take digital music for free that is not being offered for free are not generally attempting to make a grander statement about capitalist society. Few if any seem to be trying to undo marketplace protocol in general, although that would, at least, make some philosophical sense. No, it’s just the digital music they want for free (and okay, maybe movies too, as bandwidth increases).
Therein lies their scam, and their shame. There’s no high ground here for them, despite their often passionate rationales. It all comes back to “take what you can if you aren’t going to get caught.”
Like the relatively young men that they tend to be, freeloaders are filled with a young man’s sense of invincibility and infallibility, jacked up by social-media amplification. No one older and wiser dares to tell such young men what to do, dares to offer a different way that is sensitive to the big picture of history, justice, and culture.
As such, it’s easy for freeloaders to overlook the inescapable wisdom in the homely cliche about there not being any so-called “free lunch.” But in a capitalist society, this is ironclad truth. There may be millions of people in their teens and 20s at this point who have taken music for free without a care in the world, but the world will eventually let them know, definitively, that there is no free lunch. Someone somewhere is paying and is going to keep paying for their taking for free what was not offered on the market for free, and the price will eventually be extracted from them, one way or another.
The payment may come via a severe reduction in the amount of recorded music that ends up being available. It may come via a severe reduction in the quality of the recorded music that is still produced. Or, most likely of all, it may come via a harmful cultural side effect no one has yet imagined or could rightfully predict.
But a negative price will surely be extracted from all of us, eventually, if we remain on a path that accepts as a given that recorded music can be taken, for free, at the will of the person who wants it.
And yet, at this point, I’m not concerned about long-term repercussions because I have faith, a la Shirky, that we will not, at the end of the day, continue on this path. At some point the lunacy of assuming recorded music can and should be free will sink in. And then, perhaps abruptly, we will look back and wonder how we could possibly have believed that music was something no one needed or wanted to pay for. We will sheepishly remember the various schemes floated, with all seriousness, about how bands (or, even, record companies) were to make their money via t-shirts and tchotchkes.
And we will look at one another with the energetic relief that no doubt gripped pioneer towns once they realized that the outlaws with guns did not represent their endless future.
But that day didn’t arrive with people simply sitting back and waiting. As noted, we have to do our job, and that job begins first and foremost with a public rejection of the freeloader mentality. (Here’s one good example: the newly launched I Buy Music dot net.)
I am not out to judge any specific individual who, for reasons that may have seemed compelling at the time, has availed himself of free music over the last decade or so. But I am here to assert that the behavior in question, taking music for free that is not offered for free, is ultimately rooted in an attitude unbecoming of a citizen. It is neither right nor fair.
That said, I also believe the new technology rather obviously requires some serious rethinking about what constitutes fair use, not to mention what constitutes a fair price. (How on earth can there be CDs at Borders in 2010 with an $18.99 price tag?) I also believe that the technology demands that all musicians and record companies offer some free songs in addition to songs that are paid for—ideally, at least one song per every new batch, whether they come in something called an “album” or not.
But just because we cannot revert to the way things used to be, and just because we must learn to change with changing times, and just because music must now be sold more cheaply than ever before, does not require us, culturally, to throw common sense and decency and dignity out the window. Rather, if Clay Shirky is to be taken at his word, we are compelled now to look at the chaos wrought by unimpeded technology and say, collectively, no. Not that, any more. Free is not the end, only the outlaw-ish, chaotic beginning.
It was a pre-rational urge that compelled the taking of music for free, and it was perhaps an understandable first reaction as we all emerged as internet newborns back in the mid- to late-’90s. That made us internet toddlers in the new century, very sure of our untamed desires and very willing to scream when we weren’t getting them met.
And yet, still, we grow. The 2010s are here. May this be the decade we navigate ourselves out of our internet childhood altogether and move in the direction of becoming digital adults. A healthy future for music, and society, depends upon it.